The allegations in Jane Doe I et al. v. The Montessori School of Raleigh Inc. et al., filed in January in Wake County Superior Court, are at once gut-wrenching, infuriating, and difficult to read. They painstakingly detail years of alleged predatory sexual abuse on the part of a teacher, Nicholas Conlon Smith, against two sisters, identified in court documents only as Jane Doe I and II.
The gist of those allegations was made public when Smith was arrested in November on more than twenty counts of statutory rape, possession of child pornography, and related charges, and when ABC 11 obtained search warrants related to the Raleigh Police Department's investigation earlier this year, which showed that Smith allegedly began abusing Jane Doe I during the 2011–12 school year. (Smith, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, is currently locked up on $3 million bail.)
But the lawsuit, which the INDY and WRAL first reported last Wednesday, alleges something new: the private, nonprofit Montessori School—whose mission statement bills itself as "the Triangle's modern embodiment and mindful practice of the time-proven Montessori philosophy, developing agile thinkers, poised communicators, and gracious collaborators"—and its leader, Nancy Errichetti, are accused of not only failing to protect the girls from their abuser but also responding to their parents' discovery of the abuse by first denying it and then refusing to "take any action with respect to their complaint."
As a result, the lawsuit alleges, Smith stayed in the classroom for years after Errichetti was made aware of the allegations against him—and was only removed when he was arrested.
The school denies that it knew anything about Smith's alleged predation before his arrest. Last week, Joyce Fitzpatrick, a spokeswoman for the school, told the INDY that the school's Board of Trustees is "standing behind [Errichetti] one hundred percent."
In a statement, Joe Lee, the chairman of the Board of Trustees, added, "We are aware that a civil lawsuit has been filed on behalf of the victims and have filed an answer to the suit denying all wrongdoing and denying any knowledge of sexual misconduct. You can be certain that the school did not have any knowledge of any sexual assault or criminal behavior by Nick Smith before his arrest."
According to the lawsuit, Smith began "grooming Jane Doe I for his later sexual abuse" prior to her ninth-grade year by making inappropriate comments and having one-on-one interactions with her on field trips in which he promised they would be "close friends." The summer before her ninth-grade year, he began texting her, sometimes multiple times per day, the lawsuit says.
Soon after school started that year, 2011, Smith allegedly kissed her in a school barn used for arts and crafts projects. Throughout the year, the lawsuit says, "Smith engaged in both consensual and non-consensual sex and sex acts with Jane Doe I in a multitude of places .... [He also] induced her to be the subject of child pornography, and he procured and possessed the same." He told her he was her "first boyfriend" and that he "loved her," and said he would kill himself if she told anyone about their relationship, the lawsuit says.
The complaint alleges that "prior to [Smith] sexually abusing Jane Doe I, [the school] received reports of [Smith] engaging in inappropriate conduct with other young female students. However, [the school] failed to appropriately address, remedy and/or investigate the same. Further, during the time that [Smith] was grooming and thereafter sexually abusing Jane Doe I, [the school] received specific reports from teachers and staff of [Smith] engaging in inappropriate behaviors with Jane Doe I, specifically including but not limited to holding her hand, being alone with her in compromising positions (both on and off campus, including a hotel room on a school trip) and otherwise."
In August 2012, the lawsuit says, the school finally acted—sort of. While it "failed to interview Jane Doe I, failed to properly investigate the reports, failed to notify Jane Doe I's family, and failed to take any meaningful action" against Smith, Errichetti did have him sign a "corrective action plan" in which he agreed to "no longer engage in inappropriate conduct with his young female students, and wherein he agreed to do other things such as 'not to enter a girls [sic] hotel room on school trips.'"
According to the behavioral plan, which the INDY obtained, Smith was also instructed to "never socialize or interact with students in a way that you would socialize or interact with adults," and "never discuss things with them that are personal in nature ... or be alone with any student on school property or on school trips." The penalty for violating the behavior plan would not be termination, however, but a "first warning as outlined by the Employee Handbook."
This, the lawsuit says, constitutes "willfully [turning] a blind eye to the extensive sexual abuse of Jane Doe I" and gave Smith license to repeat that pattern of abuse with her younger sister, Jane Doe II, whom he allegedly began abusing during the 2015–16 school year, when she was in eighth grade. (According to the lawsuit, "None of the sexual abuse committed ... upon Jane Doe II was in anyway [sic] consensual." All of the abuse took place on the school campus, the lawsuit says, except for one incident in which Smith allegedly grabbed Jane Doe II's breasts at a Harris Teeter on a school outing.)
While this abuse was taking place, according to the complaint, the girl's parents discovered that Smith had attempted to friend her on Snapchat. Jane Doe II declined. The parents allegedly reported this to Errichetti, who told them "she did not believe their allegations."
After that, Jane Doe II left the school. Smith, the lawsuit notes, "remained in a classroom teaching minor female students."
The INDY has also obtained a second corrective action plan—not mentioned in the lawsuit—that Smith signed on June 2, 2016. It is nearly identical to the one he signed in 2012 and includes the admonitions not to enter girls' hotel rooms on school trips or be alone with students. This time, however, the school warns that failure to abide by the plan could result in termination.
Asked whether this second corrective plan was prompted by Jane Doe II's allegations or a separate incident, Lee, the school's board chairman, told the INDY in a statement: "Given the ongoing litigation, it is not appropriate for us to discuss specific issues related to this case. But I can tell you with absolute certainty that the school did not have knowledge of any sexual assault or criminal behavior by Nick Smith before his arrest. We would have promptly reported any such behavior to law enforcement."
In the lawsuit, the Doe girls' parents alleged that the school defrauded them of the more than $300,000 they paid in tuition (according to the school's website, tuition for upper elementary, middle, and high school students runs about $19,000 per year, with lower elementary school students charged a little over $17,000 per year); they are also seeking damages related to the physical and psychological injuries their daughters suffered, as well as punitive damages.
In a statement, Lee says, "The board fully supports our school's leadership and will vigorously defend our school's actions. This does not diminish our care or compassion for those impacted in any way. The safety of our students is our top priority."
The Montessori School responded aggressively to the lawsuit. Among other things, it offered affirmative defenses that claimed that the statute of limitations may have expired, that the school shouldn't be held responsible for Smith's actions, and that, if the Doe girls' parents knew or should have known about the abuse, "then and in that event, these Defendants plead those Plaintiffs' own negligence." The school also calls the plaintiffs' requests for punitive damages and attorneys' fees "frivolous and malicious."
In addition, the school argues, "Errichetti acted reasonably at all times in her capacity as Head of School. [Errichetti] did not have any knowledge of any sexual assault by Smith at any time before his arrest."
According to the school's 2016 tax filings, it had more than $5.4 million in net assets. Errichetti drew a salary of $157,864 that year.