Former Student Says Ohio County Teacher Mentally and Sexually Abused Him for 15 Years, Administrators Covered Up
WHEELING — Christopher Birch was 13 years old and in the eighth grade when his Bridge Street Middle School science teacher and track coach, Elizabeth Harbert, began grooming him for a sexual relationship, a civil lawsuit filed Thursday in Ohio County Circuit Court alleges.
The two ended up living together for the next 15 years, and now have four children — one of whom was born when Birch was 16 and a student at Wheeling Park High School, and Harbert was a teacher there, according to the lawsuit.
The 20-page filing provides details and a timeline of Harbert’s alleged sexual and mental abuse. Birch, now 28, is bringing the matter forward after finding a way to leave Harbert that “did not cost him his relationship with his children,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges “abuse, control and virtual imprisonment” of Birch by Harbert for more than 14 years, during which time he tried to leave her 30 times. She consistently threatened to end his relationship with their children if he left, according to the lawsuit.
“Defendant Harbert groomed and brainwashed Chris beginning at his age of 13,” the lawsuit states. “She controlled his living conditions, controlled his money, controlled his transportation, manipulated him with affection or withheld it, controlled him with discipline, and controlled him with dramatic instances of public (emotion) that would cause him to comply with her to avoid the public drama.”
Birch and his oldest child, referred to in the lawsuit as “B.H.,” are represented by Wheeling attorneys Teresa Toriseva and Shari McPhail. They are suing Harbert, the Ohio County Board of Education and former Wheeling Park High School principal and current Ohio County Board of Education member Christine Carder.
The lawsuit claims Carder, in her role as principal at Wheeling Park, knew of the relationship between Birch and Harbert and did not report it to law enforcement, as required by state law.
Calls Thursday to Carder were not immediately returned. Attempts to reach Harbert also were unsuccessful.
Ohio County Schools Communications Coordinator Gabe Wells said the school board would not comment on the lawsuit.
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.
Detailing the abuse
Birch lived with his grandmother during the 2004-05 school year when he was in the eighth grade at Bridge Street Middle, as he did not know his father and his mother battled addiction issues. Harbert began buying items for Birch, including shoes. She also gave him advice and guidance, essentially serving as a parent. Birch even thought of her as “mom,” the lawsuit states.
Birch moved in with Harbert and her husband during the summer of 2005, with his grandmother’s approval, according to the lawsuit. After moving in with the Harberts, Elizabeth Harbert first initiated sexual contact with Birch that summer, when she climbed into his sick bed, sexually petting and kissing him.
The sexual contact from Harbert continued, and it was in September 2005, when Birch was 14 and Harbert 28, that the two first had sexual intercourse, the lawsuit states.
Following that initial encounter, Birch said that he felt he had lost Harbert “as a mother,” according to the lawsuit. Harbert allegedly responded by telling Birch he “should just think of her as 70 percent mom and 30 percent girlfriend.”
The sexual abuse continued after that, as the lawsuit states Harbert would regularly sleep in Birch’s bed when her husband worked at nights, and set a trap by the door so she would hear if her husband returned home early. This would give her time to return to the master suite.
Harbert divorced her husband by the winter of 2006, according to the lawsuit. She also allegedly told Birch that she had stopped taking birth control because “she couldn’t afford it and that it was no big deal because she couldn’t get pregnant anyway.” That changed a few months later.
Harbert’s pregnancy and high school
Through his four years at Wheeling Park, Harbert attended all of Birch’s extra-curricular events, and took him to and from school. He participated in football, basketball and track up until his senior year, when his life became “too adult,” the lawsuit states.
During his junior year, Birch learned from Harbert she was pregnant with his child, according to the lawsuit. After this, he tried to end his relationship with her, and began dating a girl his own age.
Harbert told him he would not be able to see his child without having a romantic relationship with her, and these threats continued over the years, according to the lawsuit. The child was born just prior to his senior year — July 2008.
Birch’s senior year “was filled with a baby in diapers, a girlfriend his age that he really like and who felt mutually, and a teacher who would threaten that bad things might happen (loss of ability to see his son) if he broke up with her,” according to the lawsuit.
Birch’s name is not on the birth certificate for his first child, but is on those for the other three children, according to the lawsuit. None of the children have his last name.
Harbert told Birch he wasn’t smart enough for college, that “men needed to work” and he needed to support his family, according to the lawsuit. After graduating he found work as a coal miner, and worked at that job until age 23.
Harbert resigned as a teacher at Wheeling Park High School in August 2018 “to avoid being taken out of school in handcuffs,” the lawsuit states.
The alleged cover-up
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.
“No school official ever fully investigated or took appropriate action against Harbert for her longstanding and apparently widely known illegal and immoral relationship with Chris Birch, her student, and a boy who thought of her as a mom,” the lawsuit states. “Parents of students and relatives of (Birch) contacted the school to report their concern that (Birch) was being sexually abused by a teacher. … Harbert, Carder and the Ohio County Board of Education acted in concert … to conceal facts from (Birch) and the local authorities to prevent exposure and therefore, obstruct the prosecution of the sexual abuse and civil claims.”
Birch and his son are seeking a jury trial.