Did CMS ignore warning signs about a former band director who sexually assaulted a West Charlotte High School student?

That question goes to the heart of a federal lawsuit playing out in a courtroom in Charlotte.

Nearly a year before he sexually assaulted a student at West Charlotte High School, Duncan C. Gray, a former Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) band director, sent a series of suggestive text messages to another West Charlotte student.

“I love you more than you know,” Gray said in one of the texts.

“I hope I don’t offend you, but you turn me on,” he said in another.

CMS investigated and found the text messages to be inappropriate. Gray received a two-week suspension and a letter of reprimand.

He was allowed to keep his job.

Those text messages, and how CMS responded in the wake of their discovery, now lay at the heart of a federal lawsuit against the school district.

Lawyers for the former student who was molested by Gray are offering evidence in a Charlotte courtroom suggesting that CMS was negligent in its handling of Gray.

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In their opening statement on Tuesday, the plaintiff’s lawyers said Gray had “a well-known and well-documented history of engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior with students” and that CMS, in allowing Gray to remain at the school, ignored an obvious threat.

The student, now in his early 20s, is seeking unspecified damages from Gray and the school district.

On Wednesday, Kenneth Lynch, a criminal investigator for CMS Police, testified that district officials first learned of Gray’s text messages when a calculus teacher at West Charlotte High alerted school administrators of “explicit messages” between a student in his class and Gray.

Lynch, who led the investigation, said he found no evidence in the text messages to “prove criminal charges.” But lawyers for the former student who later was molested by Gray have argued that, by leaving Gray to teach at the school, CMS was negligent in its duty to protect their client.

Lawyers for the victim questioned Lynch about the thoroughness of his investigation, suggesting that CMS too quickly turned its attention away from Gray to focus on punishing the whistleblower, a former teacher named Everett Allen, who later was fired. 

Jurors heard a 40-minute audio recording in which Lynch questioned Allen about potential inconsistencies in his statements about the text messages.

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Lynch testified that some of Allen’s students recalled that Allen had been in possession of the student’s cell phone around the time the text messages were sent. Some of the students suggested that Allen may have used the cell phone to bait Gray into sending the text messages. 

Lynch said evidence led to a criminal investigation of Allen, who was fired for filing a false report. The school board upheld the firing after Allen failed to attend a hearing on the matter. 

Lynch acknowledged under questioning that he never subpoenaed Gray or sought a subpoena to get the student’s phone records, which later were deleted. 

Brad Smith, one of the plaintiff’s lawyers, asked Lynch why Gray was not investigated more thoroughly. 

“You didn’t think…messages like, “You smell good,” “Your smell turns me on” weren’t sexual in nature?” Smith asked the detective.

Lynch responded that, while the messages were “probably inappropriate,” he believed that Gray had sent them in response to messages first sent from the student’s phone.

“Does it frankly matter how those messages were elicited?” Smith continued. “Again, Mr. Gray knew he was communicating with a student.”

Lynch said he provided the CMS Employee Relations Department with all of the evidence from his investigation and that the department decided to not pursue the issue.

Lynch added that CMS did not want the students who were in Allen’s class the day the text messages were discovered to have to be witnesses in a trial. 

“They said it would be a burden for seniors to come to a trial during their first year of college,” he said.

Two years after the text messages were discovered and years before the sexual assault victim came forward to press criminal charges, CMS elevated Gray to “career status,” which meant that he no longer would be teaching under a year-to-year contract. 

A former CMS human resources officer testified that the text messages were not a factor in CMS’s decision.

“You’re saying a letter of reprimand would not impact career status?” Smith asked the witness.

“Not necessarily,” the former employee responded.

“So no one is going to look at the written reprimand?” Smith continued.

“Correct,” the witness stated.

“No further questions,” Smith said.

Sarafina Wright
Sarafina covers Historic West End under a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. She earned a journalism degree from Howard University. Email news tips to sarafinawright@qcitymetro.com or connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @sarafinasaid.

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