Lawsuit draws ‘no comment’

WHEELING – Chris Carder said Monday that she has “no comment” on a lawsuit that alleges she failed to adequately investigate reports that an Ohio County Schools student was being sexually abused by a teacher when she was employed as an administrator in the district.

Superintendent Kim Miller also declined to comment on the matter. Both women were asked for their comments at the conclusion of an Ohio County Board of Education meeting Monday evening.

The session marked the first time the board has gathered since the suit was filed in Ohio County Circuit Court. Carder, who was principal of Wheeling Park High School when the abuse allegedly began, is now a school board member.

The former stuent, Christopher Birch, claims in the lawsuit that his former teacher, Elizabeth Harbert, committed sexual and mental abuse against him for more than a decade. Their relationship began when he was a teenager in the eighth grade at Bridge Street Middle School, the lawsuit states, and it evolved into a sexual relationship that produced four children — the first of whom was born prior to the start of Birch’s senior year in high school.

Birch is now 28 years old and has left Harbert, according to the court filing. Represented by Toriseva Law Offices, Birch is seeking compensation relating to permanent physical injuries, past and present pain, suffering and mental anguish, indignity and shame, economic damages, diminished earning capacity and future lost wages, as well as legal fees.

The lawsuit names Harbert and Carder as defendants, along with the Ohio County Board of Education. Harbert resigned as a teacher at Wheeling Park High School in August 2018 “to avoid being taken out of school in handcuffs,” the suit states.

The suit also alleges Carder – as WPHS principal — was aware of reports that Harbert was sexually abusing Birch and failed to adequately investigate them even though Harbert was “recently divorced, single and visibly pregnant.”

The suit states Harbert and Carder “were acting as agents of the board” of the Ohio County Board of Education when the alleged sexual abuse occurred. It also states “other agents” of the board “continued to cover up and conceal the facts they knew from the reporting about the abuse, warned the teacher, took no further action to even investigate, and kept the teacher on the payroll for another decade.”

It remains unclear whether criminal charges will be pursued against Harbert. Ohio County Prosecutor Scott Smith was tight-lipped Friday when asked whether he intends to pursue criminal action against Harbert.

“I don’t have anything to say yet. There’s nothing to report at this time,” he said.

Attorneys Teresa Toriseva and Shari McPhail of Wheeling are representing Birch.

“Whether to arrest and prosecute Harbert for any crime is a decision within the discretion of the prosecuting attorney and/or law enforcement,” Toriseva said Friday. “Only they can answer this question.”

She added that the alleged coverup of the abuse is important to Birch’s civil case.

“The key in this case is that the defendants are alleged to have fraudulently concealed facts and purposefully obstructed the prosecution of the civil claims of this student who is now a man,” Toriseva said. “In such cases, the statute of limitations begins to run when the fraud and concealment and harmful conduct ends. Here, the complaint alleges the harm was continuous for a decade and a half, and it also alleges the cover up continues to this day.”