4 girls now allege Bethel school principal abused them

The Nora Guinn Justice Center in Bethel. (Photo by Dean Swope/KYUK)

There are now at least four girls alleging in court that former Bethel Elementary School Principal Chris Carmichael abused them.

In December 2019, Carmichael was arrested, and later charged with sexual abuse of a minor. Since then, attorneys for four of Carmichael’s former students have filed a lawsuit against the Lower Kuskokwim School District, where Carmichael worked, saying that the district failed to protect them.

In federal court, Carmichael faces charges of attempted coercion and enticement of a minor, possession of child pornography, and attempted transfer of obscene material to a minor. He has also been charged by the state with two counts of sexual abuse of a minor. Carmichael has pleaded not guilty.

An investigation by KYUK, Anchorage Daily News, and ProPublica found that the Lower Kuskokwim School District was aware law enforcement had twice investigated Carmichael, years before his arrest. In 2016, Alaska State Troopers found messages that he sent to a former student that may have violated Alaska ethics laws that forbid any kind of sexual conduct between teachers and students.

A lawsuit against LKSD is claiming that the school district failed to “appropriately and reasonably act and follow up on prior complaints.” That lawsuit was filed on behalf of one of Carmichael’s former students the same month he was arrested. The next month, another girl was added to that suit. Attorneys for the two girls in Bethel claim that Carmichael sexually assaulted them between 2015 and 2018, and that the school district “should have protected students from Principal Carmichael’s proclivity to sexually assault children.”

The district responded to the civil claims, denying that sexual abuse occurred in those cases. It is unclear if the girls represented in the lawsuit are the same victims cited in Carmichael’s criminal charges.

Two more girls came forward in another lawsuit filed May 7. The attorney representing them, Reilly Cosgrove, says that his clients are separate victims from those represented in the first lawsuit, bringing the number of former students alleging that Carmichael abused them to at least four. The suit claims that Carmichael molested them, but does not say when or where. In order to protect his clients’ identities, Cosgrove said that he could not answer if his clients were the victims cited in the criminal charges.

“My clients have asked for as much privacy as possible, so I won’t comment on who they are or what has happened to them,” Cosgrove said. “But our lawsuit will prove that the district is directly responsible for the abuse suffered by my clients and Mr. Carmichael’s many other victims.”

The Lower Kuskokwim School District did not respond to KYUK’s request for a response to the second lawsuit’s claims.

Western Alaska, a region with a sexual assault rate six times the national average, accounts for just 10 percent of the state population, but 40 percent of educators sanctioned for sexual misconduct with students over the past decade, according to analysis by KYUK, the Anchorage Daily News, and ProPublica. The state public safety department says that the most common victim of sexual abuse in the region is a 15-year-old girl, and she is almost always preyed upon by someone she knows.

In 2014, the Yupiit School District, along the middle Kuskokwim River, agreed to pay $2 million to the families of nine girls who said that they were sexually abused by their teacher. Martin Bowman, a 59-year-old former shop teacher in Tuluksak, surrendered his teaching certificate, writing, “I understand that exposing one’s self and inappropriately touching female students while in one’s residence is a violation of the code of ethics.”

In 2018, Alaska State Troopers found 2,000 images of child pornography on the work laptop of another Tuluksak teacher, John Paul Douglas. He pleaded guilty to a felony and lost his teaching license.

About 150 miles down the Kuskokwim River in Kwigillingok, Michael Wier, a then 31-year-old history and language arts teacher, was charged with sexual abuse of a 15-year-old female student in 2015. He pled guilty to a lesser charge of harassment and gave up his teaching certificate in Alaska. Court records show another civil suit against LKSD was filed in 2019 related to the case.

Cases of sexual abuse can be expensive for school districts, especially if a plaintiff can prove that the district should have done more to protect students. Norm Wooten, Executive Director for the Association of Alaska School Boards, also sits on the board for Alaska Public Entity Insurance, the insurance company that covers LKSD. In school sex abuse cases, Wooten says that the biggest cost is to the abused children, and then the community. But if there’s a lawsuit, he says that there is a financial cost that’s shared by the whole state.

“If there is a sexual abuse case in one school, it affects every school in the state because insurance costs are spread out among school districts across the state,” Wooten said.

Jim Valcarce is an attorney representing two of Carmichael’s former students in Bethel. Last year, Valcarce represented 13 girls from the village of Wales who were abused by a teacher, Amos Oxereok. In the settlement for that lawsuit, the Bering Strait School District agreed to pay $12.6 million to the victims.

According to the Nome Nugget newspaper, children and parents in that case also said that school officials failed to take action following reports that a teacher was molesting the girls.