Civil Lawsuit Dismissed Against Former Teacher Elizabeth Harbert, Former Principal Christine Carder
By MIKE JONES
WHEELING – A civil lawsuit filed against an Ohio County teacher accused of engaging in a long-term sexual relationship with a student has been dismissed.
While calling the allegations against Elizabeth Harbert “serious and disturbing,” Ohio County Circuit Judge Jason Cuomo wrote in his 54-page briefing Friday that he had no choice but to dismiss key elements of the lawsuit filed in April by Christopher Birch because the two-year statute of limitation had expired.
Birch claims he and Harbert engaged in a 14-year relationship that began in September 2004 when he was just 13 and she was a 28-year-old teacher at Bridge Street Middle School. The relationship produced four children before the couple ended it last summer.
Birch had claimed in his lawsuit that the statute of limitations against Harbert should be extended to last August when he “discovered” that the teacher’s conduct was “actionable.” But Cuomo wrote that the statute of limitations had expired on Birch’s claim in December 2010, two years after he turned 18.
The judge also dismissed the portion of the lawsuit against Christine Carder, who was principal at Wheeling Park High School at the time. Birch accused her of knowing about the relationship, but not reporting it to law enforcement, as required by state law. Carder currently is a member of the Ohio County Board of Education.
Most counts in the lawsuit against the Ohio County Board of Education also were dismissed, except for one count accusing the board of negligent retention, hiring and supervision.
Birch’s lawsuit claimed that the school board knew Harbert was abusing a student and instead of terminating her or “protecting” Birch, the board transferred her from Bridge Street Middle to Wheeling Park High School, “which facilitated the ongoing sexual abuse.” It was unclear when she was transferred. Harbert, now 43, remained a teacher in the district until resigning her position last August.
While the lawsuit claims the relationship began in September 2004, Birch moved in with Harbert and her husband during the summer of 2005, with his grandmother’s approval. As a high school freshman, Birch was interviewed at some point during the 2005-06 school year by a social worker after a neighbor raised concerns about possible abuse. The social worker told Birch during a 10-minute interview that “his relationship with Defendant Harbert may be considered ‘abuse’ and improper conduct,” according to Cuomo’s brief.
Harbert divorced her husband in 2006, and she and Birch had the first of four children when he was just 16. The oldest child, referred to as “B.H.” in the lawsuit, is also named as a plaintiff. Cuomo dismissed that child’s claims in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit, filed April 4, listed 11 counts against the three 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. Only the negligent retention, hiring and supervision count against the school board remains.
Harbert, 43, of 8 Four Sisters Drive, Moundsville, was arrested April 24 and charged by Ohio County sheriff’s deputies with sexual abuse by a parent or guardian, being in a position of trust and allowing sexual abuse to be inflicted upon a child and displaying of sex organs by a parent, guardian or custodian. She is free on $10,000 bond.
“We are pleased that there still remains a count against the Board of Education and that the ruling in the civil case does not affect (the criminal charges),” said Shari McPhail, one of the Wheeling-based attorneys representing Birch.
His other attorney, Teresa Toriseva, could not be reached for comment Monday.