Crime & Courts

Former Bethel principal sentenced to 15 years in prison on state charges of sexual abuse of a minor

A former Bethel elementary school principal was sentenced Wednesday to 15 years in prison on state charges of sexual abuse of a minor, which he will serve simultaneously with a sentence handed down last week in a related federal case.

Christopher Carmichael, 57, was first arrested in December 2019 after a Bethel police and FBI investigation showed he’d been sexually exploiting and coercing young girls. But reports of inappropriate behavior by Carmichael reached back years before that and detail a pattern of abuse.

An ongoing civil lawsuit brought by two reported victims asserts allegations of Carmichael’s troublesome behavior go back at least to his time as principal in Goodnews Bay, between 2003 and 2014.

Superior Court Judge Terrence Haas said during Wednesday’s hearing that Carmichael’s actions deeply hurt the community.

“There’s a long history here of people coming to this community in positions of authority in powerful institutions with access to young people and with opportunities to harm them who do so. And who, in some instances, leave unscathed,” Haas said. “And so I do not, cannot and would not punish you for the wrongs of the people who precede you, but I do take into account that you chose to come to this community, to our community, a community where there’s already been so much harm and commit so much more harm.”

Two state charges of sexual abuse of a minor were filed in April 2020, and Carmichael pleaded guilty to a consolidated count this April. The state charges said he groped two young girls on school grounds. He’d been with the Lower Kuskokwim School District for nearly 20 years, working in Quinhagak and Goodnews Bay before becoming principal in Bethel during 2014.

Parents had complained about Carmichael to police at least twice in the four years prior to his arrest. An Alaska State Troopers investigation in 2016 surrounding inappropriate messages he sent to a student did not result in charges, although Carmichael admitted behavior to his supervisors that could have cost him his teaching certificate.

He was placed on administrative leave during the investigation and again after a 2018 investigation by Bethel police after Carmichael was accused of groping a student.

He was fired after the federal charges were filed.

In the immediate aftermath of Carmichael’s arrest, a former superintendent for the district said he was shocked to hear of the charges.

Haas noted that Carmichael operated inside an institution “which seems to have not taken note of your behavior, seems to have looked the other way.”

Carmichael said during Wednesday’s hearing that he was trying to “make right what happened by accepting the plea that was offered.”

Haas said the 25-year sentence with 10 years suspended runs at the high end of sentences imposed under circumstances involving a first-time offender, but was appropriate because of the aggravating factors and the collateral harm.

The parents of two girls reported to be victims of Carmichael filed a civil lawsuit against the school district in state court in Bethel. The district has reached a settlement in the case.

Two additional victims are involved in a second civil lawsuit against the district that was filed in May.

An amended complaint filed in the case Monday included statements from teachers and school staff in Goodnews Bay and Bethel who said they witnessed inappropriate behavior from Carmichael.

The complaint includes comments from 11 staff members, including teachers, a social worker, a district principal and an assistant district principal, who reportedly noticed behavior like hugging and kissing staff or students and buying lingerie on the district’s Amazon account.

When a student who was molested by Carmichael on the school swings in 2015 reported the abuse to a teacher, the teacher told her “’we don’t talk about the principal like that’ and took no action on the report,” the complaint said.

In total, the complaint lists at least eight specific students, and alludes broadly to others, who experienced varying levels of inappropriate behavior or abuse. Some of the students were involved in previous litigation.

The complaint cited nine other allegations of abuse to students at the hands of other educators in the district and said the school “has an institutional culture that allows District employees to use their positions of power and authority to abuse District students.”

Reilly Cosgrove, an attorney representing the two victims who brought the lawsuit, said by email Wednesday that the case “will prove that the district is directly responsible for the abuse that my clients and so many other victims suffered.”

The case is scheduled to go to trial in November.