5th sexual abuse lawsuit filed against Asheville School
Warning: This article contains graphic language regarding child sexual abuse.
For the fifth time in less than a year, a former Asheville School student has filed a lawsuit against the private high school, alleging sexual abuse by a former teacher decades ago, at the same time the SBI is criminally investigating the school for more recent complaints of campus sexual assault.
John Laine, of Jefferson County, Alabama, filed the civil suit Aug. 27 in Buncombe County Superior Court, claiming he was sexually abused by former history and Spanish teacher Richard P. Woodhouse, starting in 1967 when Laine was a 14-year-old freshman living at the boarding school in West Asheville, and Woodhouse was 22 and a first-year teacher.
Laine is seeking a jury trial and compensatory and punitive damages.
His is the fourth lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by Woodhouse and the fifth alleging sexual abuse by a faculty member at the school. All allege the school was negligent in its duty to provide a safe environment for children and to protect them from sexual predators.
Laine claims the school “created a toxic school environment, and was wanton, reckless, tolerant, and deliberately indifferent to the abuse” by Woodhouse.
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‘Grooming’ young, vulnerable boys
Speaking with the Citizen Times, Woodhouse said he had never heard of Laine or the other accusers, had never heard of the lawsuits and said he was innocent of their claims. He is not named as a defendant in any of the lawsuits.
Laine alleges that Woodhouse continued a pattern that allegedly started in 1965, of grooming students at the then-all-boys’ school, including Laine, “with the goal of sexually abusing them.”
He claimed Woodhouse began sexually assaulting him less than a month after school began, and for more than a year sexually assaulted him “in several locations on the Asheville School campus, including Laine’s dorm rooms in Anderson Hall, in the locker room and in Woodhouse’s apartment in Anderson Hall.”
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Laine further alleges that in the 1968-69 school year, he was moved from the third to second floor in Anderson, making Woodhouse Laine’s “hall master in addition to being Dean of Permissions.”
Laine claims in the lawsuit that “in Woodhouse’s apartment, as he had done before, at other locations on Asheville School campus, Woodhouse made it clear he expected oral sex from Laine. After Laine complied … Woodhouse then turned away and indicated he wanted Laine to leave his apartment.”
Laine says in the complaint that he was “afraid” to go to the school’s administration and felt “none of the teachers at Asheville School could be trusted if he were to tell them what Woodhouse was doing.”
Laine claims he also told the school psychiatrist, John Patton, “dozens” of times about Woodhouse’s alleged sexual molestation, but that Patton “took no action to stop the abuse” by Woodhouse, or the “homophobic slurs” and bullying by other students who knew of the alleged abuse.
Woodhouse ‘doesn’t remember’
Woodhouse, 78, is now retired and lives in Cooperstown, New York. When contacted this week by the Citizen Times, Woodhouse at first said he didn’t remember ever being a teacher or if he had ever worked at Asheville School.
The school, which sits on a gated, wooded hilltop off Smokey Park Highway, was established in 1900 as an all-boys school. It began admitting girls in 1971. Operated as a nonprofit, the school of 299 students charges more than $66,000 a year in tuition and according to tax records, had $86 million in assets in 2019.
When told that his photo and name appear in Asheville School yearbooks, Woodhouse then said he remembered being a history and Spanish teacher there. He said he was not fired, but left in 1969 to attend seminary school in Virginia, but he left there before graduating.
“I’ve never sexually abused anybody in my life,” he said when told about the lawsuits.
According to Laine’s lawsuit, Woodhouse worked at Asheville School from 1965 until 1969, when he was dismissed after the parents of several students (not including Laine’s) reported to Asheville School’s administration that their sons had been sexually abused and assaulted by Woodhouse, although “Asheville School chose not to report the sexual abuse and assaults to the police.”
When asked if he lived in an apartment in Anderson Hall, Woodhouse said he remembered living in a dormitory but not the name of the hall.
“From time to time if there was a ball game or something on and somebody wanted to watch and I had it on and they heard the game and they’d say, ‘Hey can we come in?’ I wasn’t going to say no, get out of here,” he said when asked if he had boys in his apartment to eat pizza and watch TV, as claimed in the lawsuit.
Woodhouse said he didn’t remember the names Walter Triplette, William Garten or John Laine – the three men, who with another classmate from the late ‘60s – all accuse him in the lawsuits of sexual abuse. Triplette, who filed the first complaint in December, also accused teacher William Crutchfield, who has since died, of sexually abusing him.
Woodhouse claimed he never worked with children after his job at Asheville School, but spent most of his career in sales, living in several states.
Charles Wilton Guy Jr., who attended Asheville School from 1991-94, claims in a March 2 lawsuit against the school that he was sexually abused by English teacher Leslie Wise, then known as Leslie Anne Rodgers, while he was in the 10th and 11th grades.
All five plaintiffs, including Laine, are represented by Charlotte law firm Rawls, Scheer, Clary & Mingo. None have filed criminal charges against the former teachers.
New law legal recourse for victims
In May, Asheville School responded to the first three complaints by four alumni claiming the law under which the suits were filed, known as the Safe Child Act, is unconstitutional, setting up a battle that legal experts say could eventually land in the N.C. Supreme Court.
Session Law 2019-245, also known as the act to Protect Children from Sexual Abuse and to Strengthen and Modernize Sexual Assault Laws, or the Safe Child Act, passed unanimously by the House and Senate in 2019, opened a “lookback” window.
Due to a previous statute of limitations, alleged victims only had until they turned 21 to file suits. The lookback window opened Jan. 1, 2020, and closes Dec. 3.
The law also requires mandatory reporting by anyone age 18 or older who knows or “should have reasonably known” that a juvenile has been the victim of violent or sexual abuse to law enforcement.
“The lawsuits are stayed pending hearing before a three-judge panel to rule on the constitutional challenge of the Safe Act statute as it pertains to the statute of limitations,” said Amanda Mingo, one of the men’s lawyers.
Those hearing dates have not yet been set.
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“We take seriously these and previous allegations of sexual misconduct at Asheville School many decades ago, and sympathize with all victims of sexual assault and abuse. Nearly a decade ago, we reported Mr. Woodhouse to authorities, both in Asheville and in the city of his last known address,” the school’s publicist said on behalf of Anthony Sgro, head of school since 2019.
In 2011, a 58-year-old former student filed a criminal complaint with the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office for sexual offense that allegedly occurred at Asheville School. Then-District Attorney Ron Moore did not press charges in that case.
For subscribers: Asheville School now under criminal investigation by SBI for allegations of sexual assault
Asheville School has also been under fire in the past year from accusations that it mishandled a Title IX investigation in 2020 brought by Agnes Hill, who was a 15-year-old freshman at the school when she said she was sexually assaulted by an older male student in 2019.
That case is now under review by Attorney General Josh Stein, who on July 6 requested the SBI investigate. During an August interview, Stein said the agency is still investigating.
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Since Hill’s criminal complaint in October, at least three other alumni have filed police reports alleging sexual assaults at Asheville School.
“We have engaged with Culture of Respect to conduct a broad, intensive program that includes student and employee training regarding reporting issues involving sexual misconduct,” Sgro said in an email when asked what the school is doing to address these complaints of campus sexual assaults.
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“We also have engaged One Trusted Adult to work with all employees regarding appropriate boundaries with students, including sexual misconduct. We also have created Blues Core, a four-year program for all students that focuses on healthy relationships and life skills.”
Laine asks for damages in his suit, claiming that the abuse he suffered as a child at Asheville School has led to lifelong physical and psychological injuries, including severe emotional distress, PTSD, depression, peer abuse and ostracization, humiliation, embarrassment, fright, anger, anxiety, sudden weight loss and academic underperformance.
Karen Chávez is Content Coach/Investigations Editor for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Email her at [email protected] or follow on Twitter @KarenChavezACT