A former CMS student who was sexually assaulted by a band director at West Charlotte High School in 2011 took the witness stand Thursday in his civil lawsuit against the school district, tearfully detailing how the abuse by someone he “idolized” has impacted his life.
“It’s really hard for me to trust people,” the former student, now in his early 20s, said during questioning. “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.”
The former student is seeking unspecified damages from Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools and the former band director, Duncan C. Gray.
Gray pleaded guilty in 2016 to criminal charges related to the assault and is represented by a lawyer in the civil suit. Lawyers for CMS, meanwhile, have argued in court that the district should not be held financially liable for Gray’s actions.
On the witness stand Thursday, the former student said the assault has damaged his mental health.
“I’m unstable,” the victim said. “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,” he continued. “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.”
The former student, who was assaulted by Gray inside the school’s auditorium in the fall of his sophomore year, testified that he had struggled with thoughts of suicide.
In his testimony, he recounted how his relationship with Gray began and what led up to the day of the assault.
He joined the band as a freshman and instantly looked up to Gray, a prominent figure on the Beatties Ford Road corridor.
Prior to his teaching assignment at West Charlotte High, Gray led Johnson C. Smith University’s band from 1986 to 2004. He also was a leader in the music ministry at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church.
The victim said he wanted to impress Gray and became a “teacher’s pet.”
“I would do whatever Mr. Gray asked me to do, even things he didn’t ask me to do,” such as cleaning the band room and other band-related tasks, the former student said.
In March of 2011, Gray was missing. Band members were whispering and rumors were swirling, according to the victim. People were saying that Gray had gotten into trouble for something to do with text messages sent with another West Charlotte High School student.
“I remember asking him directly if the rumors were true about him,” the victim testified. “I remember asking him if he had interacted with [redacted] in a sexual way. And he never answered the question. He would ask in response, ‘If it was, is it wrong? Is it such a bad thing?’”
The victim testified that once Gray returned to work, the chatter ceased and band functions returned to normal. This included practices on campus from morning to night and the customary band camp over the summer.
After long practices, Gray often gave students rides home, sometimes making two or three trips. The victim was often one of those students. It was during those car rides, often alone, that physical touching began, the former student testified.
“Mr. Gray would grab and squeeze my knee, leg, inner thigh when I would ride in the car with him in the front seat. I’m not the only one he did this to. I thought it was weird at first, really weird, but watching him do it to other students, I figured this was okay and I should be okay with it,” he told the court.
As the victim’s sophomore year rolled around, his relationship with Gray, who he called a mentor, grew closer. He testified that he and Gray would talk on the phone for hours late at night and began spending more time alone, so that Gray could help him with his musical instrument.
The victim said he looked up to Mr. Gray, not only as a band director but also as a religious advisor, so he decided to open up to Gray about questions he’d been having regarding homosexuality and faith.
“I trusted him to give me an answer, help me understand this complexity of homosexuality and divinity,” he said, “if 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 okay but think it would be okay with him,” the victim said.
In his testimony, the former student said he often reflects on that conversation and thinks to himself, “It’s my fault because I shouldn’t have asked him those questions.”
“But I think to an extent he knew…[that] homophobia is just ever present in the Black community, Black church community, and he filled that void. I found comfort in it. It didn’t matter what he said at that point because to me what he said was what was real…it had to be credible,”the victim stated.
According to his testimony, on the evening of the sexual assault, Gray asked the student to leave the band room and go downstairs to the school’s auditorium so that Gray could help him with his instrument.
“He came in there and he was instructing me, but it wasn’t…it was suggestive. It wasn’t about the music. It was very obvious.”
The victim testified that Gray instructed him to lower his pants and touched him. He said Gray also lowered his own pants.
The assault was interrupted, he testified, when someone kicked on the door.
“Mr. Gray moved me out the way, pulled up his pants and he went out the other side door, and I waited,” the victim said. “I was thinking to myself, ‘What did you just do?’”
Gray’s defense attorney, Eric Montgomery, challenged the victim’s testimony with questions about his desire to be the band’s drum major and possibly being disgruntled that he was not chosen for that position.
The victim acknowledged that he once aspired to be drum major, but those aspirations fizzled, he said, after the assault.
Although he remained in the band for the rest of his years at West Charlotte, the victim said he slowly pulled away, focusing his attention on other extracurricular activities.
When asked why he didn’t leave the band completely, he said it would have made people suspicious, so he thought the best course was to continue as if nothing happened.
The former student testied that five years later, in March 2016, while home from college on spring break, a series of events triggered him to tell others, including the police, of the sexual assault. This led to a criminal investigation and a recorded phone call during which Gray corroborated the victim’s allegations.
Gray was arrested and charged with two felony counts of indecent liberties with a student. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 months of probation and community service. He also was required to pay court costs and register with the state as a sex offender.
“I thought I would feel relieved, but I didn’t,” the former student testified. “It wasn’t enough. It just wasn’t enough. He gets to move on and stay at home and I have to live with this. I have to rebuild myself. I don’t even know who I am.”