West Virginia Authorities Allege Conspiracy to Cover Up Middle School Sexual Assaults (Updated)

UPDATE, May 8, 4:05 p.m.: Since publishing this story, RH Reality Check has learned that Hester Keatley, one of the defendants, is a candidate for the Board of Education in next Tuesday’s primary elections. Additionally, Keatley’s son, James Keatley, was also a teacher until last year, when he agreed to relinquish his teaching certificate under a deal with Mingo County Circuit Court Judge Michael Thornsbury pursuant to which the judge dismissed charges of sexual assault against school students. Thornsbury is the Mingo County judge who resigned last last October and pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges.

Authorities in West Virginia have alleged that “multiple” girls at Burch Middle School in Delbarton, in the western part of the state, were sexually abused and assaulted by two male students, and that school authorities threatened and retaliated against the girls when they attempted to pursue punishment for the offenders.

The girls were as young as 13, according to the civil rights injunction lodged in Mingo County Circuit Court on May 7.

The injunction raises the explosive allegation that the offenders were protected because they were blood relatives of members of the Mingo County School Board.

The two male students have avoided criminal investigation, prosecution, or meaningful punishment due to the actions and conduct of the administrators and teachers at Birch Middle School and the Mingo County Board of Education. Instead of a meaningful investigation by the school … the female victims have been disparately treated and punished, while the alleged male perpetrators have been “taken care of”.

The defendants include the current principal and vice principal of the school, Melissa Webb and Deanna Maynard, who are both also members of the Mingo County Board of Education, according to the court filing.

Other defendants include the school guidance counselor, Hester Keatley; athletic coach Melvin Cunningham; and Randy Keathley, the superintendent of Mingo County Schools.

The document also lists the Mingo County Board of Education as a defendant in the case.

The case echoes another famous incident of sexual abuse in a school system, in which responsible adults failed to act. In neighboring Ohio, the town of Steubenville became a synonym for the systemic silencing of victims of sexual abuse, in favor of protecting the perpetrators.

Whereas the Steubenville scandal centered around the protection of athletes at the expense of their victims, if the allegations in Mingo County are sustained, the case could raise concerns of adults protecting their extended male family members—seventh- and eighth-grade students, respectively—at the expense of female victims.

“Upon information and belief, Defendant Juvenile 1 is the relative of an employee of the Mingo County Board of Education,” according to the filing, which also says, “Upon information and belief, Defendant Juvenile 2 is a relative of an employee on the Mingo County Board of Education who actively participated in the purported ‘investigation’ described herein.”

The court filing then goes on to describe how these adults allegedly threatened the girls and retaliated against them, after they tried to make complaints against their abusers. The abuse allegedly occurred during the 2012-13 school year.

It says that the then-principal, vice principal, and coach became aware of incidents of “non-consensual fondling, groping and molestation, oftentimes forcible in nature,” perpetrated against multiple girls. The abuse occurred on school grounds—in the computer lab—and on school buses, and involved the boys “physically grabbing and restraining [a victim] while groping her breasts, genitalia and/or buttocks” while trapping the girl in a bus seat. The offenders allegedly “forcibly penetrated” Victim 2 during a school field trip to Charleston.

“All of the female victims identified the same two perpetrators of the alleged sexual abuse who often acted in concert with one another,” the filing says.

Both victims reported mental anguish as a result of the assaults. The parents of Victim 1 noticed that she was becoming “withdrawn, anxious, and suffered from crying spells,” while the parents of Victim 2 noticed that her grades began to drop.

Months after the assaults allegedly began, Victim 1 confided in her mother, telling her “a portion of the nature, duration, and severity of the attacks.”

The girl’s parents made multiple calls to school officials, but were unsatisfied by the response they received. They demanded a meeting with the then-principal and the coach—Jada Hunter and Melvin Cunningham—as well as the parents of one of the perpetrators.

During the meeting, which occurred in May 2013, the father of the perpetrator allegedly “apologized for his son’s actions,” but said his son “only did it because of peer pressure” from the other boy.

Despite what amounted to an admission from the father, both the school principal and the coach allegedly told the victim’s parents that their daughter “could be disciplined for reporting the attacks,” and that “there were no witnesses” and she could “not prove a thing.”

Many states, including West Virginia, have “mandatory reporting” laws that place legal requirements on people with certain responsibilities, to tell authorities about any incidents of suspected abuse. The parents of Victim 1 told the West Virginia attorney general that the principal and coach gave them the impression that they would alert the police, only to learn nearly a year later that no such report had been made.

“Instead, every action taken by Defendants was either to minimalize the allegations against the boys and/or to protect the alleged male juvenile perpetrators,” the filing says.

The defendants embarked on a campaign of intimidation, with “the most recent discipline against a female victim occur[ing] during the week of April 21, 2014, following an interview the juvenile victim had with the West Virginia State Police who were attempting to investigate this matter in conjunction with the West Virginia Attorney General’s office.”

While the document does not name the perpetrators, given their status as legal minors, it makes clear that they were aware of their protected status as family members of locals who were in positions of power.

In response to Victim 1’s threat to report her abusers during the course of one attack, “Defendant Juvenile 1 purportedly said to Juvenile Defendant 2, ‘Don’t worry, [your relative] will take care of us.’”

Mingo County has a recent history of corruption. In the past few months, the former chief magistrate was sentenced to federal prison for voter registration fraud; the former county commissioner was sentenced to federal prison for extortion; and late last year, the former prosecuting attorney plead guilty to charges relating to a conspiracy to cover up evidence of illegal drug use by the former county sheriff.

The filing seeks a range of orders from the court, including a simple and heartbreaking request:

Relief restraining Defendants from further alleged acts of sexual abuse, intimidation and retaliation against juvenile females at Burch Middle School.

The adults named in the filings have been summonsed to provide any answer or counterclaim to the attorney general’s office within 20 days, or face default judgment.

While this filing seeks civil, not criminal, remedies, RH Reality Check asked the attorney general whether arrests are expected to follow, given the nature of the allegations. The office did not reply by deadline, but in a press release Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said, “Through this injunction, the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office seeks to restore the ability of children to attend public school and receive a proper education without fear of sexual abuse or harassment; and without retaliation and intimidation from those teachers and administrators who are under a duty to protect students in their care.”

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  • lady_black

    This doesn’t surprise me. Just this year, my niece was sexually assaulted by another student at school. The school did not notify my sister, and when she found out she was livid. My niece is only 11, and a boy at school stuck his hands down her underwear and fondled her. She’s autistic. When she tried to tell the teacher, at first he put her off because it was time for her to rotate to another teacher. The teacher was mortified when he found out how serious this was. The school was not allowed to tell my sister what they were doing about this kid due to his privacy concerns and they tried to dissuade her from contacting law enforcement. Then their solution was to have a TSS FOR MY NIECE! I suggested to her if anyone needs a TSS it’s the molester. I’m quite sure this wasn’t the kid’s first rodeo, and my niece was not the only female student assaulted by this boy. The upshot is she did contact the police about it, and now the kid who did the assault is not allowed to be anywhere without direct adult supervision. I understand this kid isn’t all there himself, but I hope he gets the help he needs before he gets into serious trouble. And they do need to protect the other students from him.

    • Mindy McIndy

      I am so sorry about your niece. It’s especially scary for special needs kids and how vulnerable they are to sexual abuse. The school’s response was atrocious, trying to dissuade your sister from contacting law enforcement. May I ask what a TSS is?

      • lady_black

        A therapeutic support specialist. It’s a trained person who assists with special needs kids in the school or home setting. My sister called the police anyway. The DA said they were going to make this kid get counseling in lieu of prosecuting him due to his age.

        • Mindy McIndy

          I’m glad that she called the police anyway. Hopefully this kid can get some real counseling and help before he gets even worse. Then again, some people are just sadistic psychopaths and it’s in their nature from the time they’re young. That was certainly the case with my attacker.

    • red_zone

      I am SO SORRY! I can’t imagine how scary that must have been for your niece. Clearly the boy needs help, but covering it up like they tried has only made the issue worse. Good on your sister for taking action when she did.

      If ANYTHING like that ever happened with my niece and the adults in charge tried to cover it up… there would be no hiding.

      • Sharona Coutts

        Hi folks, I just want to say that I’m always here if you feel that news coverage of these events would be useful. Please don’t hesitate to reach out.

  • Mindy McIndy

    I believe it. When I was in high school, I was repeatedly sexually abused, physically abused and harassed by one of my peers for years. First it was just nasty comments. Then he started to push me into lockers, grab my chest, put his hand up my skirt/down my pants/up my shirt. When I tried to fight back, it got worse. People saw it happen and did nothing. Some even laugh. When I was a junior, he wrote a manifesto on his blog that he planned to come to school, kill me first, kill our environmental science teacher, then take out as many people as he could. When he heard police sirens, he would kill himself rather than face jail. I showed it to my mom, who called the school immediately. They pulled him from class, had him delete the blog before my mom had a chance to print it out, suspended him for one week (he got longer suspensions for fighting in the halls) lied to us about calling the police, and then tried to make us feel sorry for him! The reason I know they lied is because my aunt works in the juvenile justice department, and she would check his name for us every day for months and it never appeared. I no longer felt safe. I had to change my phone number because he would call the house multiple times a day, I moved in with my aunt for awhile, left school under the guise of my health issues and finished up my junior and senior year online.

    I was a good kid who got good grades and made a lot of money for that school via donations. (I am a musician and it was a charter arts school, so they would send me out at least twice a week to perform for donors, even during the summer.) He was a bad student with obvious anger and psychiatric issues who was constantly getting in trouble. They chose to protect him over me. If I wasn’t so physically ill and emotionally drained, I would have called all four of the news stations and told them the other three were running my story to call this school out on their bullshit. No one deserves to be threatened to have the “dyke fucked out of her” on a daily basis, of be frequently sexually humiliated in front of their peers. Even the teachers I liked did nothing for me, they just told me “oh, that’s just Steven, you know how he is.” It has been eleven years since I left that school and I still have PTSD and I still have nightmares over it. That schools continued existence and success sets my teeth on edge. I wish I’d sued them for everything they were worth.

    • lady_black

      That’s appalling, and apparently things aren’t much better now.

      • Mindy McIndy

        This happened in 2003, four years after Columbine, when they were mandated to report stuff like that due to the Safe School Act. They swept it under the rug to avoid bad publicity, something they already received earlier in the year due to a widespread bullying problem. They cared about their image more than the safety and well-being of their students.

    • red_zone

      That is BEYOND horrible. i am so sorry that you were surrounded by such weak, selfish adults. Maybe it isn’t too late to do something, anything. For one, even if a blog is deleted, there HAS to be a cache somewhere.

      I wonder though.. what DID happen to your abuser? What’s become of them since then?

      • Mindy McIndy

        I remember emailing the webmaster of the blog site, and he said that he could not recoup that information since it had been deleted. Perhaps if I had the police involved, but who even knows where he was posting such blogs from, you know? It was 2003 and I knew very little about computer science and what police could do.

        I still wonder what happened to him. I look for his name in the paper and his face on mugshots.com, because it’s only a matter of time before he’s caught raping and/or killing somebody.

    • Jennifer Starr

      (((((((((((((((((((hugs)))))))))))))))))) for you

  • Sharona Coutts

    Hi there, it seems like you know quite a bit about Mingo. I’d love to chat. Please email me: sharona at rhrealitycheck dot org.