MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — On Friday morning, three individuals — who are also defendants in multiple civil lawsuits — were arrested on misdemeanor criminal charges related to allegations of verbal and physical abuse in a special-needs classroom at Berkeley Heights Elementary School in the fall.
Former Berkeley Heights teacher Christina Victoria Lester, 38, of Virginia Avenue, Martinsburg; former teacher's aide June Elizabeth Yurish, 57, of Gantt Drive, Martinsburg; and former teacher's aide Kristin Lynn Douty, 54, of Warren Clark Drive, Martinsburg, were arrested on warrants requested by the Martinsburg Police Department the day prior, according to Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Catie Wilkes Delligatti.
Lester, Yurish and Douty were arrested early Friday morning and transported to Eastern Regional Jail where they were arraigned on the misdemeanor charge of failure to report suspected abuse and neglect, according to a press release from the MPD. According to Eastern Regional Jail records, Lester, Yurish and Douty were incarcerated between 5 and 6 a.m. Friday morning.
According to West Virginia code, the misdemeanor charge is punishable by not more than 90 days in jail or a fine not more than $5,000, or both.
Since then, they have posted and were released on a $2,500 personal recognizance bond, Berkeley County Magistrate Court records said.
Investigations began last fall by the Martinsburg Police Department and Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney's Office after a concerned parent placed a recording device in her child's hair. In May, after launching an investigation at his office, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey sent a referral to the Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney's Office for the potential criminal prosecutions since the AG's office cannot press charges.
“These arrests send a strong message — that child abuse will not be tolerated and must be reported,” Attorney General Morrisey said in a press release Friday. “We must continue working to ensure vulnerable children are protected, especially at school.”
According to a lawsuit filed in Berkeley County Circuit Court — on or before Oct. 2 — the minor victim exhibited signs of emotional distress and cried before and after school. The recording allegedly revealed Lester, Yurish and Douty verbally abusing children in the class.
On Oct. 5, the minor's mother, Amber Pack, filed a complaint with MPD regarding her 6-year-old autistic and non-verbal daughter who attended Berkeley Heights Elementary, according to a criminal complaint filed in the case. The officer was also played an eight-minute audio clip in which you can allegedly hear someone say, "I am going to punch you in the face" and "shut up."
Officer B.E. Connor said in the complaint that on Oct. 5, she responded to the school to speak with Principal Amber Boeckman, as well as Yurish and Douty. After playing the portion of the recording, Douty and Yurish allegedly denied having said those things to the child. Boeckman and the Berkeley County Board of Education have also been named in the first civil suit.
"They advised Patrolwoman B.E. Conner that they may speak to each other like his, but would never speak to the children in this manner," the complaint said. "Upon review of the full eight hours of audio, this officer found no evidence of felony physical child abuse."
In March, two Berkeley County mothers filed a second civil lawsuit in the case, which was against the Berkeley County Board of Education, former Superintendent Manny Arvon and seven school employees.
Due to the similarities in the two lawsuits, the cases have been consolidated, according to court records. Twenty-third Judicial Circuit Court Judge Laura Faircloth is presiding.
In the case, the Berkeley County Board of Education, Yurish and Douty have filed motions for declaratory judgment and conjunctive relief, according to court records.
The motions are requesting the court to preclude the plaintiffs from using, disclosing or admitting into evidence the recording in the underlying civil action due to the West Virginia Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act.
According to one of the motions, the act prohibits the "intentional interception or attempted interception" of any oral or electronic communication. The Wiretap Act also prohibits procuring another person to intercept or attempt to intercept any oral or electronic communication.
"Furthermore, the Wiretapping Act prohibits disclosure to any other person the contents of any oral communication that an individual knew or had reason to know was obtained through the interception of an oral communication in violation of the Wiretapping Act," the motion said.
The attorney for Pack, Ben Salango, said there is “no reasonable expectation of privacy in a public classroom for a number of reasons.”
“There are two-way intercom systems so people in the office can listen anytime they want; there are numerous people in the classroom...; and the parents sign consent forms permitting videotaping in the classroom and on the school bus,” he explained. “So there is no reasonable expectation of privacy that defeats any arguments that the audio tape was illegal.”
Salango added West Virginia is a one-party consent state, and parents are permitted to consent on behalf of their children if they suspect abuse.
Just one month later, Yurish and Douty filed a petition seeking the annulment of their resignations.
An amended civil complaint from the U.S. Attorney General's Office further alleged that Boeckmann and Berkeley County Deputy Superintendent Margaret F. Kursey actively tried to obscure evidence with a flawed investigation. It was also alleged the deputy superintendent gave an order to destroy a recording of the verbal abuse and failed to report the matter to Child Protective Services. It also contends the BOE bears responsibility because those committing the allegations did so during the course of their employment with the board.
The civil case was filed in Berkeley County Circuit Court as part of the Attorney General’s exclusive authority to seek an injunction against any person who violates the state’s Human Rights Act, the press release said.
Morrisey reminds all criminal defendants are presumed innocent unless convicted in a court of law.