Kanawha County Board of Education hopes worst is over

By John O'Brien | Mar 24, 2006

CHARLESTON - With four sexual abuse cases in 4,000 employees, Kanawha County Board of Education attorney Jim Withrow hopes he has a coincidence on his hands - not an outbreak.

"They hit us all at one time it seemed like," Withrow said. "It's sort of overwhelming to get them all investigated."

The Kanawha County Board of Education has fired four teachers in the past year because of allegations made of sexual abuse by students and one longtime volunteer assistant athletic coach in the county stands accused of the same.

"We're hoping the timing was coincidental," Withrow said. "Since it hasn't happened since, it seems to have been."

Still, whenever there's a civil suit against a teacher who is charged with sexually abusing a student, that county's board of education will be listed as a defendant for allowing it to happen.

The statute says that if the school district had no reason to believe anything was wrong, then it is not libel. That's the basis for the defense of the school system when a teacher has done something indefensible.

That statute is enough protection for the school system, but has it been enough protection for the students?

"People with a disposition to commit these types of acts will gravitate toward areas where they will have access," Withrow said. "They will be teachers and different types of coaches to get into these situations. We have to be vigilant all the time."

In the case of former Sissonville teacher Rodney Newhouse, he faced sexual abuse charges in 1993 before some of them were thrown out of court and he was found not guilty of the others.

But in 2005, he was in trouble again, and an independent board found enough evidence to terminate his employment with Kanawha County schools.

Former Nitro teacher Robert Fulmer is accused of cornering Megan McKown and making advances toward her in an empty classroom. Former South Charleston teacher John Fisher is accused of inappropriately touching students and impregnating another. Former Capital teacher Tyrone Persinger was accused by several students, with charges ranging from touching of genitals to telling one student, "I bet you give good head."

In each case, the teacher was fired after an investigation. And in each case, the school system regrets ever hiring them - Newhouse's civil suit is asking for $18 million, though Withrow said that amount is inappropriate.

Things have calmed down since the four cases sprung up around the same time, Withrow said, and he doesn't feel the school system has done much differently since the allegations began springing up.

"I don't think we've changed our policies, particularly with regard to hiring," he said. "We do background checks and fingerprinting, and that's been in pace for quite some time.

"As far as being more vigilant with the supervising of the school, there may be more of that. But a school the size of Capital has 100 teachers and four administrators. They can't be everywhere at once."

For now, Withrow and the Board of Education will just have to hope that the number of accusations begins to decline toward zero.

"Even three, that's not a large percentage," Withrow said. "But one's too many."

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