North Carolina H.S. Student Awarded $10.5 Million in Sexual Assault Case
A federal jury ordered the Charlotte Mecklenburg School District and a former band leader to pay millions to a former student who was sexually abused and harassed while attending the West Charlotte High School. The jury’s award is one of the highest in a North Carolina school assault case.
“Maurice” claims he was assaulted while a student at the West Charlotte High School. (Although the student’s name was disclosed in legal proceedings, we do not print the full name of sexual assault victims without consent.) Under the terms of the jury’s decision, the Charlotte – Mecklenburg Board of Education must pay Maurice $7.5 million and former band director Duncan Gray must pay $3 million.
Gray was previously convicted in 2016 with a related criminal prosecution for indecent liberties with the student. Although no longer serving his criminal sentence, Gray is not eligible to teach and has limited assets. Unfortunately, we believe that the portion of the award that Gray was ordered to pay will be uncollectible.
According to court records and trial testimony, Duncan Gray was hired by the Charlotte school system during the 2010 – 2011 school term. Maurice says that Gray had a checkered history when hired and had been fired or disciplined at least one job prior to being hired by the Charlotte Board of Education. He also had a reputation for “engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior with students” before being hired by the Board.
The same year that Gray was hired to teach at the West Charlotte High School, Maurice enrolled in that school as a freshman and joined the band. Gray was Maurice’s band teacher for all four years that Maurice was enrolled in the school.
During his first year (2010 – 2011), Gray took a personal interest in Maurice, often tutoring him after school and giving him rides home. Gray's behavior soon became sexual. He began grabbing Maurice’s leg and engaging in discussions about sexuality. Gray even suggested that “engaging in homosexual acts with him would be okay.”
Before long Gray was making constant inappropriate sexual conversation and suggestions with Maurice. That then escalated to calling Maurice on his cell phone to continue these conversations.
As things escalated, Gray was suspended from teaching for 18 days. Although the school board wouldn’t reveal why, we believe that he was harassing other students.
Nothing of substance happened over summer but during the first weeks of Maurice’s sophomore year Gray touched his crotch in the back of the band room. When interrupted by someone banging on the door, Gray ran out of the room.
Maurice was traumatized by the incident and stopped going to band practice and refused to return Gray’s calls. When Maurice finally answered one of those calls, “Gray told Plaintiff [Maurice] that God was okay with homosexual acts, that Plaintiff should ‘think the way he [Gray] thinks,’ and that if Plaintiff ‘could not handle’ engaging in sexual acts with Defendant Gray, it was because Plaintiff ‘was immature.’”
After Maurice continued to reject Gray’s advances, Gray punished Maurice and removed him from his lead chair position in the band. He also marginalized him by telling him and others that he was a poor musician. As graduation approached, he even tried to prevent Maurice from graduating with his class!
Only after graduation did Maurice’s mother go to the police and the school district.
Schools Can Be Held Liable for Actions of Teachers and School Workers
The lawsuit against the Charlotte – Mecklenburg Board of Education is significant since often teachers and other school employees have little money to pay a damage claim. In this case, the school was ordered to pay $7.5 million to Maurice.
Even though Gray was the actual perpetrator, Maurice claimed that the district had actual knowledge that its teacher Duncan Gray was engaged in conduct that “posed a pervasive and unreasonable risk of constitutional injury to citizens like Plaintiff [Maurice].”
According to the lawsuit,
“Defendant Board’s response to that knowledge was so inadequate as to show deliberate indifference or tacit authorization of the alleged offensive practices.
“There was an affirmative causal link between the Defendant Board’s inaction and the particular constitutional injury suffered by Plaintiff.”
Maurice says the school board failed to adequately conduct background checks on its employees, improperly hired Gray even after knowing he had prior complaints of sexual misconduct, failed to adequately supervise Gray, and didn’t provide sufficient staff training to prevent harm to students.
Prior to trial, the Charlotte Board of Education repeatedly attempted to have the case dismissed. At one point it even sought help from a federal appeals court. Although some of the claims were ultimately dismissed, the case went to a jury in May 2021. Ten years after being assaulted in the band room, Maurice finally got to tell his story.
At trial, Maurice testified,
“It’s really hard for me to trust people. I always think that someone is trying to do something to me, even my own mom. Sometimes it’s really hard for me to understand if someone is helping me to hurt me or helping me because they actually care.”
Since the incident Maurice has contemplated suicide and says the assault and harassment has left him severely traumatized. His emotional wounds are unfortunately all too common in sexual misconduct cases involving student victims.
The school board’s lawyer attempted to portray Maurice as a disgruntled student who was upset because he wasn’t made the school’s drum major.
North Carolina law allows juries to apportion liability in sexual harassment and sexual assault cases. After hearing the evidence we think the jury got it right. Although Maurice suffered no physical injuries, the four years of constant debasing behavior took a huge emotional toll. From suicidal thoughts to severe cases of PTSD, the effects of these attacks are real and almost always devastating.
Jury Rules Against School Board
The case against Gray was a given. We weren't worried that the jury would find him liable. The real case centered around the school board. Even though the education and criminal justice system failed Maurice, jurors provided him some measure of justice.
The real injustice is how the school ever let this happen. Duncan Gray was hired despite prior sexual misconduct allegations. They kept him even after getting caught in another incident. Instead of getting fired he was given just 18 days off without pay. (We are currently working on another case where a school worker was caught kissing a student on video surveillance but not fired. That same worker later repeatedly sexually assaulted the student.)
Even after being arrested and convicted, Gray didn’t have to serve any prison time.
Despite all the obstacles, Maurice didn’t lose faith.
How to Sue a School or Teacher for Sexual Misconduct
As this case points out, sexual misconduct cases need not involve rape. On just one occasion Duncan Gray touched Maurice’s genitals while at school. But over four years, Gray mounted a never ending and devastating campaign of sexual harassment and retaliation against Maurice.
Some students (and adults) are afraid to report sexual misconduct if it doesn’t involve actual rape or penetration. They feel nothing will happen or that their complaints won’t be taken seriously. Whether the Charlotte – Mecklenburg Board of Education would have responded properly is anyone’s guess had Maurice stepped forward while still in school. Judging by the comments of their lawyer and their defense at trial, the answer is no.
Thankfully, we have juries and the right to address our grievances in court. If you find yourself the victim of unwanted and inappropriate behavior or physical contact, call an experienced sexual harassment lawyer.
It isn’t unusual for victims to feel so helpless and worn down that many don’t step forward for years. We know from Maurice's case that it was his mother who contacted the school board after graduation. Her actions led to Gray being arrested, fired and later convicted. When Gray didn’t have to serve a day in jail, Maurice brought a civil case. And that was what finally helped him receive some measure of justice.
One of the best ways to get a school district’s attention is through their purse strings. Duncan Gray is a violent predator who should be in jail. But to the school district, he was expendable. Once too many complaints came in, he was fired. We bet, however, that if more students had taken the district to court, Maurice would not have endured four years of living Hell.
Although the School Board is threatening to appeal, we believe that the $10.5 million verdict has got their attention and the attention of every other school district in North Carolina.
As we see from this case, schools have a duty to carefully screen candidates, to not hire teachers with prior abusive misconduct and to protect students. While the board of education claimed it acted properly, the jury thought otherwise.
If you are the victim of sexual misconduct or assault by a teacher, speak up. In many states the typical two year reporting deadline is extended for many years if the victim was a juvenile. Some states even define “juvenile” to mean any student in high school even if they are 18.
These extended time periods to sue have helped many victims of sexual assault by Catholic priests and boy scout leaders to get their day in court.
It isn’t easy for kids to step forward. Often it takes years. Unfortunately some victims never come forward.
If you are the victim of sexual assault by a teacher, school bus driver, band leader or coach, give us a call. The consultation is free and without pressure or obligation. Attorney Brian Mahany is a former prosecutor, board member of the Family Violence Project and volunteer with the Sexual Assault Crisis Center. Everyone who works with us is similarly hand selected to work on these cases.
If you aren’t ready to talk, visit our sexual assault lawsuit information page. Wondering how much time you have to sue? Visit our statute of limitations chart. (Caution, these laws and court interpretation are constantly changing. Don’t rely on a chart to determine if you are still able to sue.)
Ready to see if you have a case? Contact us online, by email [hidden email] or by phone at 877.858.8018. All inquiries are protected by the attorney – client privilege and kept strictly confidential.
More Information about DUNCAN GRAY
As of May 2021, Duncan Gray still lists himself on LinkedIn as the Director of Bands at the Charlotte High School. (He is not.) Until the time of his arrest, he listed himself as Special Assistant to the Senior Minister at Baptist church in Charlotte and a former band leader at Winston Salem State University and Johnson C. Smith University, both in North Carolina.
All these positions potentially provided opportunities to interact with children. Unfortunately, we often find that those who prey on vulnerable kids and young adults seek teaching or mentoring positions.
We have NO evidence that Gray was a serial predator. He has been convicted of just one incident. We do warn employers, however, to be especially careful when screening and supervising workers who have regular contact with kids and who occupy positions of trust with students.
As of January 2020, North Carolina is one of the states that has not opted to greatly extend its statute of limitations for juvenile victims of sexual assault. North Carolina generally gives victims of sexual assault three years to sue. If the victim of the assault was a juvenile, the clock doesn’t start running until the victim turns 18. If the offender was criminally prosecuted, the date to sue can be extended to two years after the date of conviction (if the conviction is for a felony.)
We remind readers that these statutory time limits to sue are both complex and constantly changing, especially in sexual assault cases. This post is for general information only and not a substitute for consultation with a lawyer.
[Photo under license from Unsplash]