Alaska school district will pay $3.8M to settle with victims of a predatory Bethel principal

Gladys Jung Elementary School on March 16, 2020 in Bethel, Alaska (Katie Basile/KYUK)

The Lower Kuskokwim School District agreed this week to pay $3.8 million to settle a lawsuit.

Attorneys for two girls had sued the district for failing to protect them from sexual abuse at the hands of Christopher Carmichael, a former Bethel elementary school principal. Carmichael is currently serving a 15-year federal sentence for attempted coercion and enticement of a minor and a 25-year sentence for sexual abuse of a minor.

KYUK’s Greg Kim spoke with Anchorage Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins who recently reported a story on LKSD’s settlement.

Listen here:

Greg Kim: Kyle, you just published an article about the Lower Kuskokwim School District agreeing to pay an almost $4 million settlement in a sex abuse lawsuit. What was this lawsuit arguing?

Kyle Hopkins: This was the first of two lawsuits filed against the school district that involve Carmichael’s years working for the district, specifically his latter years as a principal in Bethel at the elementary school. And what the lawsuit is alleging is that these two children who were former students of his were sexually abused at school by Carmichael, and that his ability to abuse them was kind of enabled by the school district — that the reason he had access to these kids was by virtue of his job as the principal of the school.

RELATED: Four girls now allege Bethel school principal abused them. They’re suing the school district for inaction.

GK: By agreeing to pay this settlement is LKSD essentially admitting that it knew about Carmichael’s prior problems with students, and that it mishandled those prior reports?

KH: They’re agreeing to pay this money, right? And in exchange, the lawsuit goes away and the plaintiffs can’t come back and file another one. But in that agreement, they specifically say, ‘You know, we’re not admitting guilt.’ It’s one of those types of settlement agreements where the defendant is not admitting to do anything wrong. But they’re willing to pay out this kind of extraordinary amount of money to make the lawsuit go away.

GK: And did the victims or the victims’ parents make any statements in the settlement hearings?

KH: I did talk to the mother of one of the girls yesterday. She’s making this ask that — it has a little bit of precedent, but it would be unusual — she’s asking that the state of Alaska, the Department of Education, step in and appoint a trustee who would kind of really have authority over the school district. They would then investigate this matter — what was known and when, who knew what, what actions were taken? And if this trustee were to find that people enabled this behavior, the mother’s asking that those people, basically, that they be removed from the district. And so that’s the unusual part here. And it’s probably a little unlikely, because the Department of Education says that there’s not necessarily a mechanism to do that, to kind of put a trustee in place for these matters, that they would consider to be personnel issues.

RELATED: A rural school district said it was blindsided by a Bethel principal’s arrest. Except he’d been investigated twice before.

GK: That’s interesting. Has LKSD made any statement in response to that mother or in general about these cases? 

KH: They said that they’re confident in their response to date. Their position seems to be that they went kind of above and beyond any standard that exists in other schools in Alaska to make sure that their employees, their administrators are being trained, with the best knowledge available on how to spot grooming behavior, how to prevent sexual abuse, how to not enable this type of behavior in the future. So their position is: There’s a new policy and there’s a new system in place that would prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future. And certainly they’re arguing that no state intervention would be necessary.

GK: And this settlement was for $3.8 million, which will be paid out to two victims. Compared to other school sexual abuse lawsuits that you’ve looked at, is that a lot of money?

KH: It sure seems to be. After the story that you and I worked on last year, we did a round of records requests to school districts to try to understand how many settlements were out there. Because sometimes they just happen and nobody knows about them. The school districts aren’t keen to advertise them. So we wanted to get a sense of: What did we miss? What other types of lawsuits like this have been settled by Alaska school districts? And there were a few. One was already pretty well known, which was the Wales case from about two years ago. The Bering Strait School District agreed to pay like $12.6 million, but there were plaintiffs in that case. So, this is a large payout for two plaintiffs. It might be the largest per plaintiff that we found. We might be missing something, not all the school districts complied with that records request. But from the information we were able to get, this seems like a pretty severe penalty for the school district.

RELATED: Read additional coverage of the investigation into Chris Carmichael

GK: And as you mentioned, this is not the only sexual abuse lawsuit that LKSD was facing. What’s going on with the other one?

KH: That one is by two other plaintiffs. And my understanding is it doesn’t involve any of the children who were identified in the state charges. So these would be kids who we haven’t really heard about before. And there’s a Fairbanks firm that’s handling that case. That case is still scheduled for a trial Nov. 1 And it’s really unclear if that’ll be settled. I talked to an attorney for the school district who said that case is, you know, the facts of that case are very different from the one that was just settled. It doesn’t mean they won’t settle but what the attorney said today was they do intend to fight that lawsuit.

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