Crime & Courts

Western Alaska school district that employed principal despite sex abuse complaints will pay $3.8 million to his victims

This article was produced in partnership with ProPublica as part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

An Alaska school district that claimed to have been blindsided by sex abuse charges against one of its principals, but which had actually been aware of serious complaints for years, has agreed to pay $3.8 million to two of his victims. The family of one girl is now calling on the state to temporarily take over the school system and remove any employees who failed to act to address the behavior.

The FBI’s local Child Exploitation Task Force arrested Christopher Carmichael, principal of Gladys Jung Elementary School in Bethel, in December 2019 after an undercover investigation caught him sending sexually explicit messages to someone he believed to be a 13-year-old girl. Investigators found Carmichael had sexually abused a former student, then in seventh grade, over a period of months, sometimes on school grounds during visits to her former elementary school.

The Bethel-based Lower Kuskokwim School District is in a Western Alaska region where sexual assault rates are more than double the state average.

Carmichael pled guilty to a federal charge of attempted coercion and enticement of a minor in November 2020. In April of this year he also pled guilty to separate state charges of sexual abuse of a minor. He is currently serving a 15-year federal prison sentence and declined to comment.

Carmichael’s actions also prompted two civil lawsuits brought on behalf of a total of four children against the Lower Kuskokwim School District, which employed Carmichael for nearly 20 years.

Carmichael admitted in an apology letter filed this year in state court that the district was “well aware of my problems with young girls” as early as 2015.

District officials signed settlement agreements in the first lawsuit in June, according to records obtained through a public records request. One victim will receive $2.9 million and the other will receive $900,000. The second lawsuit, representing two other victims, is scheduled for a jury trial in November. The district said it had no evidence Carmichael had molested the second two plaintiffs, according to an initial reply filed in state court. (The plaintiffs in the second case subsequently filed an amended complaint, which the district has not responded to yet.)

“This is a different case entirely, and we are going to be fighting it,” said Donald Austin, an attorney for the school district.

On Friday, the mother of one of the girls in the first lawsuit called on the state of Alaska to appoint an official to both take control of the district and investigate why Carmichael was allowed to remain on the job despite prior criminal investigations into his interactions with young girls.

“No money will bring back what they lost. They lost their childhood,” the mother said. “In terms of the future, we wonder why those who knew of the abuse failed to protect the children.”

She added, “The state needs to audit and see why this happened and who knew, and failed to act.” The Daily News and ProPublica are not quoting her by name to protect the identity of her daughter, but verified her identity through school district email correspondence and the law firm that filed the lawsuit.

Carmichael’s conviction represents the latest in a series of failures by Alaska school districts to protect students from educators and school employees.

In Tuluksak, 35 miles upriver from Bethel, the tiny local school district agreed to pay $2 million in 2014 to the families of nine girls who said they were sexually abused by a shop teacher. The Bering Strait School District agreed in 2019 to pay $12.6 million to 13 girls who were victimized by a school employee in the village of Wales.

The Daily News and ProPublica sent records requests to all Alaska school districts in 2020 asking for copies of any lawsuit settlements each district had agreed to over the previous 20 years. The Lower Kuskokwim School District settlement is among the largest payouts for a sexual abuse case in the state in the last two decades.

[Read the series: LAWLESS: Sexual violence in Alaska]

It was not immediately clear how much of the settlement money would be paid out of pocket by the district to meet insurance deductibles, and how much would be covered by insurance. The superintendent did not answer that question. The families of the victims said the girls will gain access to the payments when they become adults.

At Gladys Jung Elementary in Bethel, Carmichael oversaw 330 children from third to sixth grades. He previously worked for the same district in a neighboring village and, according to information included in the state charges against him, sent a series of inappropriate texts to a former student in that community.

When a reporter for KYUK public radio in Bethel asked then-superintendent Dan Walker about the investigation into Carmichael hours after the principal’s 2019 arrest, Walker said: “We were blindsided by it. We did not have any prior knowledge that they were conducting an investigation.”

But a 2020 investigation by the Anchorage Daily News, KYUK and ProPublica found that at least twice over the previous four years, parents had complained to police about Carmichael. In 2016 the principal admitted behavior to his supervisors that, under Alaska ethics laws for educators, could have cost him his teaching certificate.

All the while the school district allowed him to keep his job and remain in regular contact with young children until his arrest.

In an affidavit filed in one of the civil cases this year, Carmichael admitted he “sexually abused and offensively touched” students under his care. As early as 2015, he wrote in an apology letter, a school official reported Carmichael to the district for “inappropriate boundary violations with students.”

Current district superintendent Kimberly Hankins declined an interview request, citing the busy start of the school year. In an email, she wrote that “out of respect for the legal process” she could not discuss details of the case.

Asked what steps, if any, the district has taken to prevent future abuse or hold accountable school officials who fail to act, Hankins wrote that the district has hired an outside expert to review existing policies and practices and recommend changes.

“LKSD has enacted new model policies, training, and practices to protect children against sexual abuse in schools,” Hankins wrote, adding that the new policy “is based on the best available research on how sexual grooming occurs.”

She wrote, “Our primary focus is to help staff understand the importance of maintaining professional boundaries and to identify and stop potential grooming situations before they lead to abuse.”

The mother who spoke to the Daily News said that’s not enough. She is asking for the state of Alaska to conduct its own review.

“What we wish is that a trustee be appointed by the state Department of Education to run LKSD until we know who was negligent and that they have been removed,” the mother said.

Asked whether the state education department would consider taking action, spokesperson Grant Robinson said Alaska laws do not clearly authorize the department to intervene in a local school district’s operation over a personnel issue.

“Therefore, consultation with the department of Law would be needed before taking any action,” he wrote.

At Carmichael’s sentencing in July, Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Doty read a statement from a girl who was 9 years old when Carmichael befriended her and began paying her special attention. (Her mother is the one now calling for the state to intervene in running the school district.)

The girl, who said she wanted Carmichael imprisoned for life, said teachers had seen him grope her but did nothing, which led her to believe the behavior was normal.

“I don’t trust the world as much as I used to,” the girl said, according to the statement read in court. “I get nervous at school that someone, old or young, man or woman, will hurt me again.”

Daily News reporter Tess Williams.contributed.

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