A federal jury has ordered Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and a once-prominent high school band director to pay $10.5 million to a former student victimized by persistent sexual harassment and an eventual assault.
The civil judgment was handed down Friday after the four-day trial of the student’s lawsuit against CMS and Duncan Gray, a longtime band instructor at West Charlotte High School.
The award is among the largest in memory for a sexual-misconduct case in Charlotte. CMS was ordered to pay $7.5 million; Gray, $3 million.
Asheville attorney Dean Shatley, who was on the CMS defense team, said the school district was “disappointed in the jury’s verdict, and we will be filing the appropriate post trial motions and appeals.”
Gray’s attorney did not respond to an Observer email seeking comment.
The Observer normally does not identify the victims of alleged sexual assault. The former student’s name does appear in the lawsuit.
According to the 2017 complaint, Gray groomed and pursued his victim, called him at home, urged him to engage in sexual acts, and, when rebuffed, threatened him and tried to keep him from graduating.
According to Qcitymetro, Gray’s victim testified this week that he had confided in Gray both as a teacher and spiritual adviser on whether “God would still love me and if I could still be divine and interact with men?”
“Instead of answering that question, he pushed me to not only think that it was OK but think it would be OK with him,” the former student said.
Gray sexually assaulted the student — a sophomore at the time — in the school auditorium in 2011, the complaint alleges.
Earlier that same year, Gray had been suspended by CMS for sending sexually explicit texts to one or more other West Charlotte students, according to the complaint.
This week, the victim, now in his early 20s, told the jury that being assaulted by someone he “idolized” left him pondering suicide, Qcitymetro reported.
“I’m unstable,” the victim testified. “As much as I try to make it seem like I have it together I don’t … I don’t, not in my mind.”
“It carries into everything. From being able to maintain a job to forming friendships. I’ve never been in a relationship. I can’t bring myself to talk to someone long enough.”
Brad Smith, one of the victim’s attorneys, said the jury’s decision made a statement on the value of a life.
“The judgment, I think, is consistent with what kind of price can you put on bodily integrity,” Smith said. “ ... On the right to go to school and not be molested by a teacher you trusted,”.
Assault and improper texts
In his lawsuit, the former student accused CMS of failing to protect him from Gray, a former band director at Johnson C. Smith University who taught at West Charlotte High for a decade before his arrest and resignation in 2016.
In December 2016, Gray pleaded guilty to taking indecent liberties with a student, a felony, and was sentenced to 30 months’ probation with “sex offender special provisions.”
The complaint, filed by Charlotte attorneys Smith and Paul Tharp, claimed that CMS had prior notice of Gray’s “well-known and well-documented history of engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior with students,” yet still kept him in the band room.
CMS suspended Gray in 2011 after a cellphone containing “explicit sexual conversations with one or more West Charlotte students” was found. The school district at the time acknowledged that Gray had been suspended but did not say why.
Smith said Gray received a written reprimand for the texts, but the district fired the teacher who had reported the incident for not being truthful. Two years later, according to Smith, Gray received “career status,” or tenure, under a unanimous vote of the school board.
A police report of Gray’s 2016 arrest said his sexual misconduct with the male student occurred between 2010 and 2014, and that his victim was 13 years old when one of the reported crimes occurred.
According to the lawsuit, the student played trumpet in West Charlotte’s band his freshman year. Gray told him in the spring of 2011 to switch to French horn, then proceeded to give him hours of after-school tutoring, The Observer previously reported.
On rides to the student’s home, the lawsuit says, Gray would touch the youth’s legs and suggest “engaging in homosexual acts with him.” Eventually the sexual comments spilled into school hours, and Gray began calling the student at home, the suit says.
Gray’s pursuit occurred around the same time CMS became aware of the inappropriate texts to students, which led to Gray’s suspension.
According to the lawsuit, Gray touched the student’s genitals during a December 2011 horn lesson in the auditorium, which was interrupted when someone banged on the door.
After that, according to the complaint, the student avoided Gray, who continued to make suggestive remarks.
When the student rebuffed the band director’s advances, Gray disparaged him and his musical ability. He also tried to delay the student’s graduation by fining the student for a “alleged failure to pay a stipend.”
Gray threatened the student to remain silent. “If you say anything I am going to get you,” the band director told him, according to the complaint.
In a court filing this week, the school district’s attorneys said the student did not alert anyone to Gray’s behavior until after he graduated from West Charlotte.
The district began an investigation when the victim’s mother emailed then-Superintendent Ann Clark about “a rather serious issue that needs to be addressed,” according to the filing.
In cross-examination, according to Qcitymetro, Gray’s attorney, Eric Montgomery, attempted to portray the student as disgruntled over his failure to become the West Charlotte drum major.
In his testimony, the former student said the damage from Gray’s behavior still clouds his life.
“It’s really hard for me to trust people,” the former student said. “I always think that someone is trying to do something to me, even my own mom.
“Sometimes it’s really hard for me to understand if someone is helping me to hurt me, or helping me because they actually care.”