News Violence

West Virginia Authorities Allege Conspiracy to Cover Up Middle School Sexual Assaults (Updated)

Sharona Coutts

Authorities in West Virginia have alleged that “multiple” girls at Burch Middle School in Delbarton, in the western part of the state, were sexually abused and assaulted by two male students, and that school authorities threatened and retaliated against the girls when they attempted to pursue punishment for the offenders.

UPDATE, May 8, 4:05 p.m.: Since publishing this story, Rewire has learned that Hester Keatley, one of the defendants, is a candidate for the Board of Education in next Tuesday’s primary elections. Additionally, Keatley’s son, James Keatley, was also a teacher until last year, when he agreed to relinquish his teaching certificate under a deal with Mingo County Circuit Court Judge Michael Thornsbury pursuant to which the judge dismissed charges of sexual assault against school students. Thornsbury is the Mingo County judge who resigned last last October and pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges.

Authorities in West Virginia have alleged that “multiple” girls at Burch Middle School in Delbarton, in the western part of the state, were sexually abused and assaulted by two male students, and that school authorities threatened and retaliated against the girls when they attempted to pursue punishment for the offenders.

The girls were as young as 13, according to the civil rights injunction lodged in Mingo County Circuit Court on May 7.

The injunction raises the explosive allegation that the offenders were protected because they were blood relatives of members of the Mingo County School Board.

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The two male students have avoided criminal investigation, prosecution, or meaningful punishment due to the actions and conduct of the administrators and teachers at Birch Middle School and the Mingo County Board of Education. Instead of a meaningful investigation by the school … the female victims have been disparately treated and punished, while the alleged male perpetrators have been “taken care of”.

The defendants include the current principal and vice principal of the school, Melissa Webb and Deanna Maynard, who are both also members of the Mingo County Board of Education, according to the court filing.

Other defendants include the school guidance counselor, Hester Keatley; athletic coach Melvin Cunningham; and Randy Keathley, the superintendent of Mingo County Schools.

The document also lists the Mingo County Board of Education as a defendant in the case.

The case echoes another famous incident of sexual abuse in a school system, in which responsible adults failed to act. In neighboring Ohio, the town of Steubenville became a synonym for the systemic silencing of victims of sexual abuse, in favor of protecting the perpetrators.

Whereas the Steubenville scandal centered around the protection of athletes at the expense of their victims, if the allegations in Mingo County are sustained, the case could raise concerns of adults protecting their extended male family members—seventh- and eighth-grade students, respectively—at the expense of female victims.

“Upon information and belief, Defendant Juvenile 1 is the relative of an employee of the Mingo County Board of Education,” according to the filing, which also says, “Upon information and belief, Defendant Juvenile 2 is a relative of an employee on the Mingo County Board of Education who actively participated in the purported ‘investigation’ described herein.”

The court filing then goes on to describe how these adults allegedly threatened the girls and retaliated against them, after they tried to make complaints against their abusers. The abuse allegedly occurred during the 2012-13 school year.

It says that the then-principal, vice principal, and coach became aware of incidents of “non-consensual fondling, groping and molestation, oftentimes forcible in nature,” perpetrated against multiple girls. The abuse occurred on school grounds—in the computer lab—and on school buses, and involved the boys “physically grabbing and restraining [a victim] while groping her breasts, genitalia and/or buttocks” while trapping the girl in a bus seat. The offenders allegedly “forcibly penetrated” Victim 2 during a school field trip to Charleston.

“All of the female victims identified the same two perpetrators of the alleged sexual abuse who often acted in concert with one another,” the filing says.

Both victims reported mental anguish as a result of the assaults. The parents of Victim 1 noticed that she was becoming “withdrawn, anxious, and suffered from crying spells,” while the parents of Victim 2 noticed that her grades began to drop.

Months after the assaults allegedly began, Victim 1 confided in her mother, telling her “a portion of the nature, duration, and severity of the attacks.”

The girl’s parents made multiple calls to school officials, but were unsatisfied by the response they received. They demanded a meeting with the then-principal and the coach—Jada Hunter and Melvin Cunningham—as well as the parents of one of the perpetrators.

During the meeting, which occurred in May 2013, the father of the perpetrator allegedly “apologized for his son’s actions,” but said his son “only did it because of peer pressure” from the other boy.

Despite what amounted to an admission from the father, both the school principal and the coach allegedly told the victim’s parents that their daughter “could be disciplined for reporting the attacks,” and that “there were no witnesses” and she could “not prove a thing.”

Many states, including West Virginia, have “mandatory reporting” laws that place legal requirements on people with certain responsibilities, to tell authorities about any incidents of suspected abuse. The parents of Victim 1 told the West Virginia attorney general that the principal and coach gave them the impression that they would alert the police, only to learn nearly a year later that no such report had been made.

“Instead, every action taken by Defendants was either to minimalize the allegations against the boys and/or to protect the alleged male juvenile perpetrators,” the filing says.

The defendants embarked on a campaign of intimidation, with “the most recent discipline against a female victim occur[ing] during the week of April 21, 2014, following an interview the juvenile victim had with the West Virginia State Police who were attempting to investigate this matter in conjunction with the West Virginia Attorney General’s office.”

While the document does not name the perpetrators, given their status as legal minors, it makes clear that they were aware of their protected status as family members of locals who were in positions of power.

In response to Victim 1’s threat to report her abusers during the course of one attack, “Defendant Juvenile 1 purportedly said to Juvenile Defendant 2, ‘Don’t worry, [your relative] will take care of us.’”

Mingo County has a recent history of corruption. In the past few months, the former chief magistrate was sentenced to federal prison for voter registration fraud; the former county commissioner was sentenced to federal prison for extortion; and late last year, the former prosecuting attorney plead guilty to charges relating to a conspiracy to cover up evidence of illegal drug use by the former county sheriff.

The filing seeks a range of orders from the court, including a simple and heartbreaking request:

Relief restraining Defendants from further alleged acts of sexual abuse, intimidation and retaliation against juvenile females at Burch Middle School.

The adults named in the filings have been summonsed to provide any answer or counterclaim to the attorney general’s office within 20 days, or face default judgment.

While this filing seeks civil, not criminal, remedies, Rewire asked the attorney general whether arrests are expected to follow, given the nature of the allegations. The office did not reply by deadline, but in a press release Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said, “Through this injunction, the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office seeks to restore the ability of children to attend public school and receive a proper education without fear of sexual abuse or harassment; and without retaliation and intimidation from those teachers and administrators who are under a duty to protect students in their care.”

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