A federal jury awarded $10.5 million to a former Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools student who was sexually assaulted by a band director at West Charlotte High School nearly a decade ago.
The verdict, issued late Friday, came after four days of testimony during which lawyers for CMS sought to distance the school district from the actions of its former employee who, in 2016, pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to the assault.
The jury ordered CMS to pay the former student $7.5 million. The former band director, Duncan C. Gray, was ordered to pay $3 million.
Weeping from the victim and his mother filled the courtroom as the deputy clerk read the judgement.
Lawyers for CMS indicated they would appeal the decision.
Earlier in the day, Gray apologized to the victim from the witness stand.
“I’m sorry. I regret it to no end,” he said. “I would never want any of my students to have to go through what he may very well be going through. To [the victim] and his family…in the sense of not only praying for myself, I pray for him and his family.”
The former student, now in his early 20s, testified on Thursday that the 2011 assault left him struggling with feelings of anxiety, depression, anger and thoughts of suicide.
“I’m unstable,” he said from the witness stand. “As much as I try to make it seem like I have it together, I don’t…I don’t, not in my mind.”
QCity Metro is withholding the former student’s name, which is customary when reporting about sexual assault victims.
In tearful testimony, the former student recounted how he joined the band as a freshman at West Charlotte High and immediately looked up to Gray, back then a prominent figure on the Beatties Ford Road corridor.
Prior to his teaching assignment at West Charlotte, 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.
“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 under questioning.
The victim testified that he and Gray sometimes talked on the phone for hours late at night, and that he once had opened up to Gray with questions he had about homosexuality and faith.
The former student testified that, during his sophomore year, Gray molested him inside the high school’s auditorium. The assault, he said, involved improper touching.
During opening arguments on Monday, Dean Shatley II, a lawyer for CMS, did not dispute the fact of the attack so much as he denied the school district’s culpability. With more than 17,000 employees and 140,000 students spread over 175 schools, he said, CMS should not be held financially liable for Gray’s actions.
“You cannot prevent every accident, unfortunate incident or even bad actors,” Shatley told the jury.
A lawyer representing the student insisted that CMS had been “deliberately indifferent to the risk that Gray posed” to students at the school, noting that, less than a year before the assault inside West Charlotte’s auditorium, the former band director had been suspected and reprimanded by CMS for sending suggestive text messages to another West Charlotte High student.
“I love you more than you know,” Gray said in one text message.
“I hope I don’t offend you, but you turn me on,” he said in another.
Over the next three days, jurors heard from a string of current and former CMS employees who testified to various aspects of Gray’s conduct and tenure at the school.
Kenneth Lynch, a criminal investigator for CMS Police, testified that although Gray’s text messages may have been inappropriate, he found no evidence in them to “prove criminal charges.”
That same day, a former CMS human resources officer acknowledged that, despite Gray’s suspension and letter of reprimand over the text messages, he was approved by the district for career status, which meant he no longer had to work under a year-to-year contract.
When questioned further, the former human resources officer said Gray’s suspension and reprimand were not factored into the district’s decision because, by the time the decision was made two years later, “the case was closed.”
Another former employee in CMS’s human resources department said on the witness stand that Gray’s text messages were somewhat ambiguous in meaning, suggesting that, in Black culture, the phrase “you turn me on” is not always meant in a sexual way.
Peter Gorman, who was CMS superintendent when the text messages were exchanged, testified Friday that he never was made aware of the incident.
In his closing statement, Paul Tharp, a lawyer representing the student, suggested once more that CMS has been negligent in allowing Gray to remain at the school.
“Defendant Duncan Gray knew better than to do what he did,” the lawyer said. “Defendant [CMS] Board of Education knew better, knowing what it knew about Gray, than to leave him in a position where he could abuse a student…”
The jury deliberated for about two hours before coming back with its decision.