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School system pays over $100,000 in settlement

The Rowan-Salisbury School System has paid $105,000 in a settlement with a student who was sexually assaulted by his Erwin Middle School classmates on an overnight field trip in 2010.

The Post’s policy in cases like this is not to publish the victim’s name, however, the family and victim wanted their story to be told to raise awareness about bullying and what needs to be done to protect victims at school.

The “Sound to Sea” trip was held Oct. 20-22, 2010.

On the second night of the trip to the Trinity Center in Cartaret County, four of Jacob Hughes’ classmates – all Erwin Middle School eighth graders – spit on him, exposed themselves and then touched their bodies to his face, among other things, while he was sleeping in an unsupervised cabin.

Hughes is no stranger to bullying, according to his parents. Cerebral palsy causes him to walk on his toes and affects his sense of balance and how the right side of his body functions.

Before the trip, his father took Hughes’ medications for the trip with notes and instructions to Erwin, including and EpiPen, asthma inhaler and Benadryl. The instructions said Benadryl was only to be administered for bee stings.

According to court documents, Hughes complained of a headache, and teacher Franklin File gave him the Benadryl his father supplied for bee stings only.

That night, no adult chaperone slept in the room where Hughes was assigned.

The Benadryl caused Hughes to fall into a heavy sleep, and during that time, the boys went over to his bed, stood over him and sexually assaulted him.

“Sometime during the night, he woke up to one of the boys standing over him,” Hughes’ mother, Deborah Hughes, said.

Hughes remembers the boy shouting an expletive and running back to his bed. The next morning, he had a sore throat, felt sick to his stomach and had a funny taste in his mouth, she said. “He didn’t understand what was going on.”

The following morning, Hughes’ teachers and assistant principal heard about the incident and interviewed students to find out what happened.

Carl Snider, the assistant principal, called Hughes’ father to tell him that students had pulled a “prank” on Hughes. Snider was slight on details, and the incident was not reported to Cartaret County law enforcement.

When they returned that evening, Deborah Hughes was given more information, but a majority of the details were still left out.

According to court documents, “Jacob told his mother that the other students said he must be gay because of what many students by then knew or had heard happened.”

Deborah Hughes took her son to be examined at Rowan Regional Medical Center, and evidence of the sexual assault was discovered. Hospital personnel reported the assault to Rowan County law enforcement, and a criminal investigation was conducted.

The investigation resulted in sexual assault charges for all four of the juveniles. They appeared in court in Cartaret County a few months later, and all four took a plea bargain. They were sentenced in Rowan County in April 2011. Criminal records for juveniles are sealed.

After the assault, Jacob missed two weeks of school, his mother said. He suffered with anxiety and wanted to commit suicide.

Rather than being expelled for committing a sexual crime, the boys received five-day suspensions and then returned to classes at Erwin, where Hughes was still enrolled.

Now seniors, two of the boys still attend East Rowan High School, where Hughes also is a senior. Through the years, Deborah Hughes said, the other boys were put in the same classes as her son time and time again.

Following the criminal case, the Hughes family filed a civil suit against two of the boys, the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education on behalf of teachers Joe Miller Jr. and Franklin File, and Assistant Principal  Carl Snider.

The Hugheses decided to wait to file a civil suit against the other two boys until they turn 18 because the court does not appoint lawyers to minors in civil court.

Of the two boys who did have lawyers, one settled for $2,000. The other’s settlement agreement was sealed by the courts. The Rowan-Salisbury School System settled for $105,000.

Portions of the money went to cover the Hugheses’ legal fees – $37,186.50 from the school system and $666 from the one offender. The rest of the money is held in a trust, which will go to Hughes when he turns 18.

“A lot of people have really looked at this as ‘Mom and Dad want money,’” Deborah Hughes said. “Every single bit of it is put in an account at the courthouse until Jacob turns 18 and the money goes directly to him. We want the best for Jacob.”

According to court documents, the civil suit brought against the school system said the chaperones were negligent during the field trip. Other issues raised in the lawsuit were not appointing a chaperone to sleep in Hughes’ room, failing to detect the signs of bullying, not reporting the assault, not expelling the boys and not sharing all the information with Hughes’ parents.

While the school system agreed to pay the settlement amount, it did not admit liability. It is also responsible for forming a formal plan for Hughes’ safety at school and formally acknowledging that the assault happened.

Deborah Hughes said that, although the school system has developed a plan to keep her son from having contact with the other boys, it isn’t efficient.

“The things they put in place was for him to separate himself,” she said, explaining that while he was still at Erwin, he would wait in the office until all the other students got to class and that he could go to the library if he ever felt threatened.

“The school system really won’t take any responsibility,” she said.

Rita Foil, spokeswoman for the Rowan-Salisbury School System, said the district has no comment because this was a legal mediation and regards a student.

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