Attorney: Elizabeth Harbert “Suffered Physical and Emotional Abuse” From Student
WHEELING — A former Ohio County Schools teacher accused of engaging in a 14-year sexual relationship with a student starting in middle school is now claiming that same student physically and emotionally abused her for years, according to a statement released by her attorney, Mark Kepple.
Kepple’s statement on behalf of his client, Elizabeth Harbert, “challenges any and all allegations which suggest she consented to a relationship” with her former student, Christopher Birch. “We are confident that the civil justice system will expose the decade-plus history of the physical and emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of Birch and vindicate her fully,” the statement reads.
Harbert, 43, is named in a civil lawsuit filed in Ohio County Circuit Court that alleges she began grooming her former student, Birch, when he was 13 and an eighth-grader at Bridge Street Middle School. Birch, now 28, moved in with Harbert and her then-husband prior to starting high school, and a sexual relationship between the two began, according to the lawsuit.
Harbert divorced her husband in 2006, and she and Birch have since had four children together, according to the lawsuit — the oldest of whom was born when Birch was just 16.
Also named in the lawsuit are former Wheeling Park High School principal and current Ohio County Board of Education member Christine Carder, who allegedly knew of the sexual relationship between Harbert and Birch but did not report it to authorities, and also the Ohio County Board of Education.
Birch, through his attorneys, Teresa Toriseva and Shari McPhail, is seeking a jury trial.
Kepple said Harbert “appreciates the wide range of support she has received from family, friends, and colleagues through this difficult time. Ms. Harbert requests privacy to protect her four beautiful children from these reckless and false allegations.”
The allegations against Harbert have been front-page news for much of the past week. Kepple, in his statement, said “given the use of the press by Mr. Birch to spread salacious lies about her, a response is necessary.”
“The allegations of wrongdoing and inappropriate conduct are denied. Ms. Harbert challenges any and all allegations which suggest she consented to a relationship with Mr. Birch when he was a student in the Ohio County School System,” the statement reads. “Mr. Birch’s actions and his lawsuit represent a disgusting new low in the history of American Jurisprudence. This lawsuit is nothing more than a money grab and an underhanded attempt to separate a mother from her children.
“We are confident that the civil justice system will expose the decade-plus history of the physical and emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of Mr. Birch and vindicate her fully.”
Potential Criminal Aspects
Under West Virginia law, statutory rape is defined as a “person being (16) years old or more, engages in sexual intercourse or sexual intrusion with another person who is less than (16) years old and who is at least four years younger than the defendant and is not married to the defendant.”
In this case, according to Birch’s lawsuit, Harbert was 28 when she and Birch, then 14, first had sexual intercourse.
There is no statute of limitations on the crime of statutory rape in West Virginia.
Ohio County Prosecutor Scott Smith on April 5 said his office had “nothing to report” regarding possible criminal action against Harbert.
During at least part of the time during this relationship, the two — as well as their children — resided in Moundsville. Marshall County Prosecutor Rhonda Wade said her office had not been approached about the possibility of criminal charges against Harbert in her county.
Wade said she is only aware of the case through news stories.
Toriseva said it would be up to local prosecutors to decide if any criminal action would be taken.
The statute of limitations on statutory rape as alleged in the civil lawsuit can vary, Toriseva claimed.
“The statute of limitations varies for each type of claim within the complaint — from two years of discovery to four years to possibly up to 20 years for minors or those who may be mentally unable to prosecute their claim.”
The lawsuit lists 11 counts against the defendants including civil conspiracy for allegedly covering up reports and red flags; fraudulent concealment; sexual assault and harassment at school and school-related events; wrongful birth; failure to report the alleged sexual crimes; negligent retention, hiring and supervision; emotional distress; and sexual assault by a parent, guardian or custodian.
The lawsuit states Harbert and Carder “were acting as agents” 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 contends all defendants “conspired to cover up reports and red flags that indicated defendant Harbert was sexually abusing 14-year-old Wheeling Park High School freshman Chris Birch.” The lawsuit also alleges school officials violated West Virginia law by not reporting circumstances to law enforcement or the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.
Last week, Toriseva and McPhail filed an amended complaint on Birch’s behalf that they say establishes paternity between Birch and his co-plaintiff, a minor child identified only as “B.H.” who is listed as the son of Harbert.
DNA testing done March 28 indicates Birch “cannot be excluded as the biological father” of B.H. The testing was done by Fastest Labs of Pittsburgh and indicates a 99.9999 percent certainty of paternity, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit also restates many of the original allegations including how Harbert allegedly portrayed herself as a mother figure toward Birch. After they had sex for the first time, according to the lawsuit, Birch told Harbert he believed he was losing her as a mother. She allegedly told him to think of her as “70 percent mom and 30 percent girlfriend.”
“The abuse, control and virtual imprisonment of a young man that began when he was 14 years old and his teacher offered to let him live with her ended one day recently when, after trying to leave 30 times or more over the course of 14-plus years, Chris finally found the way forward that did not cost him a relationship with his young children,” the lawsuit states.
Carder last week refused to comment on the lawsuit, as did Ohio County Schools Superintendent Kim Miller.
Staff Writer Alan Olson contributed to this story.