Former teachers sue East Wake Academy and Board president for negligence

mhankerson@newsobserver.comFebruary 28, 2014 

— Two former East Wake Academy teachers have filed a civil lawsuit against the school and its board chairman, claiming neither took action against former headmaster Brandon Smith when it was reported he was sexually harassing and assaulting employees.

The lawsuit, filed Feb. 26, alleges school board chairman Mike Lester and the school are liable for sexual assault, sexual battery, sexual harrassment, inflicting emotional distress and negligence.

The lawsuit asks for $10,000 or more from Lester and the school, although one of the woman’s attorneys, Denise Smith-Cline said the money is not the focus of the lawsuit for her client.

“The lawsuit sets forth the actions that Mr. Lester and the school did or didn’t do to protect teachers,” Smith-Cline said. “It talks about things that should’ve happened to protect teachers.”

The women took Smith to court in October on two charges of sexual battery and two charges of assault on a female. He was found guilty of one of each charge and sentenced to 120 days in jail and must register as a sex offender for 30 years.

The civil lawsuit recounts a timeline of events that details the two women’s accounts of unwanted touching, sexual advances and sexual harassment.

It also echoes what the former employees testified to during Smith’s trial in October: It was difficult to voice complaints in the school and see action taken against Smith until he was fired in March 2012.

Part of that, the lawsuit claims, is because the board, which is the charter school’s governing body, failed to reprimand Smith.

“Prior to the termination of Smith, East Wake Academy and Lester did not take reasonable steps to prevent, investigate or remedy sexual harassment of (the victims) by Smith,” the lawsuit reads.

Internal board problems

The lawsuit also documents one incident in which other board members seemed to be discouraged from solving the problem.

Board members Robin Hicks and Peedie Edwards raised concerns about the complaints at a board meeting and later received letters saying they acted inappropriately and if they continued to do so, they would lose their seats on the board.

It also said Hicks and Edwards had violated school policy by speaking to the teachers before the teachers filed formal complaints.

And although it focuses on events that happened almost two years ago, the lawsuit claims support for Smith still exists at the school.

“Since Brandon Smith’s termination, EWA has organized and sponsored school-sponsored events during school hours and on school property to support Brandon Smith with the knowledge of the Board and Mike Lester,” the lawsuit reads.

“After the termination of Brandon Smith, EWA and Lester continued to take steps to make their continued allegiance to Brandon Smith apparent. In meetings conducted after the termination, EWA management made statements suggesting that the termination and subsequent sexual harassment training was the fault of (the victims), instead of Brandon Smith.”

Lester declined to comment on the lawsuit. East Wake Academy’s attorney could not be reached for comment.

Hankerson: 919-829-4826; Twitter: @easternwakenews

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