Washington Post | September 26, 2018
A 27-year-old math teacher, Jennifer Olajire-Aro, coerced a 17-year-old student into having sex with her, repeatedly threatening to dock his grades if he refused, according to a lawsuit filed by the South Carolina teenager and his mother.
The sexual advances had become so "public, direct, and obvious" that the student avoided Aro's classes at Burke High School in Charleston, aware that administrators, other teachers and his classmates knew about them, the lawsuit says. The sexual encounters ended in December after the teen refused to have sex with Aro – who then lowered his grade from 98 to 89 out of 100, according to the lawsuit.
The teen and his mother sued Aro's employer, the Charleston County School District, accusing officials of not quickly investigating Aro despite a history of sexual misconduct in the district. The lawsuit, filed last week in Charleston County Circuit Court, comes amid an investigation of the district's handling of separate allegations against a different school employee, who was reportedly promoted despite accusations that he had used a school computer to view child pornography. That employee was later accused of molesting two students.
"They'd known about the propensity of their employees to have some type of sexual exploitations, and therefore they were all on notice," said Mark Peper, who represents the teen and his mother, neither of whom is named in the lawsuit. "It's just clear to me that they just didn't care. It's just a complete lack of oversight and supervision from the district itself. It's a pattern."
A schools spokeswoman said the district does not comment on pending litigation.
Aro, now 28, was charged in December with sexual battery of a student. Her attorney, J. Kevin Holmes, did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday. During Aro's bond hearing shortly after her arrest, Holmes said she did not have a criminal record or disciplinary history at the school and had received teaching awards, the Post and Courier reported. She taught pre-calculus and algebra and is married with a baby girl.
But Peper said Aro was "hellbent" on having a sexual relationship with the student. She began flirting with the teen after she became his math teacher at Burke High in August 2017. She talked to him about sex before, during and after class, and made sexual advances in plain view of other teachers and students, the lawsuit alleges.
In November and December, Aro "encouraged and coerced" the teen to have sex with her on several occasions and at different places: at the school, in her car, in her home. At least once, it happened around Aro's 10-month-old baby, the lawsuit says.
When the teen resisted, Aro turned to blackmail, Peper said.
"Each time he would show his hesitancy to continue this forced sexual relationship, she would remind him that she alone controls his grade," Peper said.
Peper alleged that school administrators and teachers who knew about the misconduct did not report it to school officials.
"At this particular high school, all the teachers are very close. . . . It would shock me if the teacher herself didn't share with other teachers what was going on with her student," he said.
The teen's classmates knew about it, too, and teased him for being a "teacher's pet, among other things," Peper said.
The teen, the suit says, didn't say anything about the teacher to his mother for weeks, fearing that Aro would dock his grade as she had threatened to do. But in December, he decided he couldn't go on.
"He put his foot down and said, 'You do what you got to do. I'm just not doing this anymore with you,' " Peper said.
Aro then docked the teen's fall-semester grade by 11 points, the lawsuit says. He told his mother, who immediately reported the allegations to police and school officials. But Peper said the district did not investigate until about three weeks later, and Aro was arrested.
Erica Taylor, the district spokeswoman, said Aro was immediately placed on administrative leave and was fired in January, the month after she was charged.
The district has been facing criticism for its handling of sexual allegations against a former employee at another school. Marvin Gethers was promoted to a higher-paying job in 2014 and became an employee of the year in 2015 – both after an IT specialist found that he had accessed child pornography from his school laptop, WCSC reported.
Gethers was arrested in 2016, after which time two children told police that he had molested them in 2015, the Post and Courier reported. Gethers was later charged with sexual exploitation of a minor and multiple counts of criminal sexual misconduct with a minor, online court record show. He died of heart failure in July 2017 and was never tried.
Taylor said the school district fired Gethers once officials learned of the allegations against him. She said school officials who were in charge in 2014, when Gethers was promoted, are no longer with the district.
Current officials have also hired outside counsel to investigate the allegations against Gethers and the district's handling of the situation, and to "advise on ways to avoid a situation like [this] from ever happening again," Taylor said.