Former WPHS teacher Harbert pleads guilty

WHEELING — Former Wheeling Park High School teacher Elizabeth Harbert pleaded guilty Tuesday to third-degree sexual assault for her lengthy sexual relationship with a former student and was sentenced to one to five years in state prison.

Harbert, 42, of 8 Four Sisters Drive, Moundsville, entered a Kennedy/Alford plea on Tuesday, according to information provided by the office of Circuit Court Judge Michael Olejasz. Through this type of plea, Harbert acknowledged the state has enough evidence to convict her but denies wrongdoing.

She has until Sept. 3 to report to the Northern Regional Jail. Harbert will be under 10 years supervised release following her imprisonment, and must register as a sex offender for life.

She was initially arrested in April on charges of sexual abuse by a parent, guardian or custodian to a child.

Harbert began a sexual relationship in 2005 with Christopher Birch, who was then 15 and an incoming freshman at Wheeling Park High School. She had been his teacher and track coach when he was in eighth grade at Bridge Street Middle School.

Harbert became pregnant with the first of their four children in 2007 when Birch was 16. Their relationship ended in 2018, prompting Birch to file civil suit against Harbert and the Ohio County Board of Education. The Ohio County Prosecutor’s Office followed with criminal charges against Harbert.

Harbert resigned her position as a science teacher at Wheeling Park High School at the start of the 2018-19 school year.

Both the civil complaint and a criminal complaint filed by the West Virginia State Police indicate that during the summer of 2005 — just prior to starting his freshman year at Wheeling Park High School — Birch allegedly had his first sexual encounter with Harbert. He was 14 at the time and she was 30. Birch had been living with Harbert and her then-husband, and she later would divorce her husband.

The complaints site DNA evidence reporting the chance of Birch’s being the father of the child at 99.99 percent.

The civil complaint focuses largely on the Ohio County Board of Education, and alleges school employees were negligent by not properly investigating reports of sexual abuse by Harbert against Birch. It states employees within the district received multiple reports alleging Harbert was sexually abusing Birch, and that it should have been cause to investigate these when the single divorcee appeared to be pregnant.

The criminal complaint filed in April, meanwhile, states on Jan. 28 current Ohio County Schools Superintendent Kim Miller contacted the West Virginia State Police after she received a sexual abuse allegation complaint from Birch — who graduated from WPHS in 2009.

While the civil suit was dismissed against Harbert because of statue of limitations, the board of education still remains a plaintiff. Current board member Christine Carder was principal at WPHS when Birch was in high school, though no other current board members were affiliated with the school district at that time.

A civil trial date involving Birch and the Ohio County Board of Education has been set for Aug. 10, 2020.