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Sexual harassment suit settled

February 10, 2001|By DAVE McMILLION

Sexual harassment suit settled



CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - A state insurance agency, acting on behalf of the Jefferson County Board of Education, has paid seven former female students $70,000 to settle a 1999 sexual harrassment suit.

The suit alleged a former Jefferson County teacher touched female students inappropriately, according to an attorney in the case.

Most of the students were 13 when the offenses are alleged to have occurred.

As part of the settlement, former Charles Town Junior High School teacher Norvel Willis has agreed not to seek employment as a teacher in the state and agrees to avoid contact with the women in the suit.

The settlement also requests the board of education to consider policies regarding how sexual harrassment cases are handled. Board of Education member Pete Dougherty said some of the suggested policies are already in place.

"Frankly, I'm not happy with the settlement," said Board of Education President Larry Togans.

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Togans said he believes the board was not at fault in the case. Togans said the board's insurance carrier - The West Virginia Board of Risk and Insurance Management - wanted to settle the case, believing it would be a cheaper way to resolve the matter.

"If you fight it, you have lawyer fees, and it might add up to more than what you settled for," said Togans, who believes the board handled the matter properly.

The West Virginia Board of Risk paid the $70,000 settlement.

The board does not assume any guilt under terms of the settlement, said Associate Superintendent Beverly Hughes.

As soon as the board was made aware of the case,it held a hearing and terminated Willis' employment, Dougherty has said.

Willis, reached by phone, would not comment.

Willis was a track coach, substitute teacher and basketball coach at Charles Town Junior High School. All of the female students were either on the track team or were members of a cheerleading squad that was required to be at every track meet, said Martinsburg attorney Laura Rose, who represented the girls.

The suit, filed Sept. 30, 1999 in Jefferson County Circuit Court, alleged that Willis rubbed the shoulders and arms of a female student and squeezed her thigh during the 1995-96 school year.

On April 25 of that year, Willis kissed the same student on the cheek, the suit alleged.

On another occasion that year, Willis rubbed the back and shoulders of another female student and finished "with his hand just brushing against her buttocks," the suit alleged. Willis then called to the student, "hey, beautiful," the suit said.

In another incident, Willis told a third female student she had been "looking mighty fine" and "if you were old enough I'd marry you," the suit alleged.

The settlement recommends that the board use an "ombudsman" to receive student complaints about sexual harrassment by teachers.

Dougherty said the Board of Education has already designated an employee in the central office to be an ombudsman for such cases. Dougherty said students can also report sexual harrassment complaints to teachers or counselors.

Rose commended the former students in the case for following through with the allegations.

"This was not an easy thing for them to do. I am so proud of how these girls came forward," Rose said.

Named as defendants in the suit were the Board of Education, Willis and the West Virginia Education and Employees Grievance Board.

The grievance board was named as a defendant because when Willis appealed his termination to the board, the process was too slow and because the girls, who had previously testified, were asked to do so again as part of the appeal, Rose said. A circuit judge later dropped the grievance board from the suit.

Togans expressed concern about how the Board of Risk Management handles some of its cases. The insurance agency, which protects elected officials and governments from suits like the one involving Willis, sometimes does not contact the board they are representing when a case is settled, Togans said.

The Board of Education did not know about the Willis settlement until after the agreement was reached, Togans said.

When a government agency is named in a suit, an attorney from the insurance company is assigned to the case and represents the agency in working out a deal, said Superintendent of Schools David W. Markoe.

"We have very little say in the deal that's ultimately worked out. Often times, we don't agree with the deal, but that's the settlement that the Board of Risk makes," Markoe said.

The girls who filed the suit were Karey Warriner, Mary Considine, Megan Bowers, Melonie Rush, Daysha Jenkins, Carrie Williams and Jaime Burch.

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