BETHEL, Alaska — For some parents, it was the gifts from the principal to young girls and their families that gave them pause. A few too many presents that cost a little too much money. Then began the late-night Facebook messages.
Through most of it, the principal of one of the largest elementary schools in rural Alaska remained on the job and in close contact with students. Then, in December, Gladys Jung Elementary Principal Christopher Carmichael was arrested by the FBI’s Child Exploitation Task Force and later charged with possession of child pornography, attempted coercion of a child and sexual abuse of a minor.
In a state with a history of failing to protect children, and in a region with a sexual assault rate more than six times the national average, parents of girls are asking the same question: How was this allowed to happen?
An investigation by the Anchorage Daily News, KYUK public radio and ProPublica found that at least twice over the previous four years, parents had complained to police about Carmichael. In 2016, Carmichael admitted behavior to his supervisors that, under Alaska ethics laws for educators, could have cost him his teaching certificate.
After those earlier investigations, which ended without charges, Carmichael’s employer, the Lower Kuskokwim School District, allowed him to remain at school. The district fired Carmichael after his arrest.
According to the FBI, the principal sent a series of explicit texts to a phone number that he believed belonged to a 13-year-old girl, asking the girl to masturbate, send him photos and call him “daddy.” At the time of his arrest he’d been planning to meet a child for sex in Bethel, the federal charges say.
“The relationship between a teacher and child or a principal and a child should be one above reproach,” said Susan Murphy, who served as school board president in 2016 when state troopers first investigated Carmichael.
Murphy said the board was not informed about the complaint or the investigation. “I’d like to know why the hell he wasn’t fired,” she said.
The case of the charismatic Bethel school principal is the latest in a string of rural Alaska educators accused of sexually abusing students. Prior generations of children in the region suffered abuse at the hands of visiting Catholic priests, many of whom worked in village and regional schoolhouses. Separately, Alaska Native students from the region were plucked from their homes and shipped to boarding schools, where some were abused and many punished for speaking their indigenous language.
Western Alaska accounts for just 10% of the state population but 40% of all educators sanctioned for sexual misconduct with students over the past decade, an analysis by the Daily News, ProPublica and KYUK has found.
Other offenders go undetected or, like Carmichael, are given chance after chance despite Alaska laws and ethics codes that allow a state regulatory board to suspend or remove any teacher who shows signs of viewing students as sexual targets.
Carmichael on Dec. 20 pleaded not guilty to federal charges of attempted coercion and enticement of a minor, possession of child pornography and attempted transfer of obscene material to a minor. In April, he pleaded not guilty to separate state charges of sexual abuse of a minor. Carmichael’s defense attorney said he had no comment for this story.
The parents of two girls who allege the principal molested them have filed suit against the district in state court in Bethel. In a legal response to the suit, the school district wrote that no sexual abuse of the girls by Carmichael occurred.
Back in December, hours after the FBI handcuffed Carmichael, Lower Kuskokwim School District Superintendent Dan Walker told a reporter he had no knowledge of any concerns about the principal.
Asked how he could have said that given the prior accusations against Carmichael, Walker said in a statement last week: “Twice LKSD reviewed the facts and saw nothing that put a child at risk. Not only did I not see it coming, I do not believe that the people who worked directly with Carmichael saw it coming either.”
“An Incredibly Popular Principal”
Now 55, Carmichael arrived in Bethel in 2014 after working for about 15 years in two tiny, nearby coastal villages at the edge of the Bering Sea.
Parents say he was a big, gregarious man. Energetic, loud and outgoing.
“Please be aware that Carmichael had been an incredibly popular principal with students, staff and parents and had a solid reputation as a principal,” Walker wrote in a statement for this story. “He was the kind of person who had the reputation of bending over backwards to help people. Carmichael was well-respected by students, staff and parents.”
In Bethel, villagers from dozens of surrounding communities arrive year-round by small plane, boat or, in the winter, drive the frozen river to shop for groceries. Carmichael oversaw students and staff at Gladys Jung Elementary, with an enrollment of 330 children from third to sixth grade. That’s about as many students as the entire population of the village where he worked before changing jobs.
But he kept an eye on at least one of his former village students after the move, state criminal charges say. When the girl, then 14, posted a selfie to Facebook in January 2016, Carmichael saw the picture and messaged her on the platform.
“Love those luscious red lips on your profile pic :-)” he wrote from Bethel. The two began to chat.
Carmichael called the girl by pet names. “Sweetness,” “loveliness,” “baby,” “sweetie,” “sweet girl,” “pretty girl,” “beautiful” and “sweetheart.”
He teased her about being up late at night.
“I know you and your naughty ways to (sic) well :-),” he wrote, according to charging documents. “You can’t escape my all seeing eye! :-)”
“Bend you over my knee and whackkk! :),” the principal wrote.
The girl’s mother saw the exchange a few weeks later and phoned state troopers. Why, she asked, was her child receiving messages from a school administrator talking about her daughter’s lips, her naughty ways and spanking?
A criminal complaint filed in state court describes what happened next.
Within a few weeks of the Facebook exchange, state troopers and employees for a child advocacy center flew from Bethel to the village to investigate.
On March 15, 2016, troopers met with the assistant superintendent for the Lower Kuskokwim School District, Carlton Kuhns, and told him about the criminal investigation into the Bethel elementary school principal. During this period, the district placed Carmichael on paid administrative leave because of the investigation, a district attorney later told KYUK.
(In response to questions, the superintendent would not say how long Carmichael was placed on leave during the 2016 trooper investigation, citing the ongoing lawsuit.)
But the criminal charges recently filed by state prosecutors have helped fill in some details about what was alleged. Troopers confronted Carmichael at his office at Gladys Jung Elementary. The principal said he “regretted the wording that he used” and told troopers he’d been medicated when he messaged the girl. He hadn’t meant any harm but learned his lesson and would stop “Facebooking” with students, he promised.
Walker, the superintendent, said Carmichael had been on approved sick leave in Anchorage when he began chatting online with the girl.
“While we were quite disturbed when we saw the texts, we did not have information that the girl was in any danger,” he said. Walker said he called Carmichael into his office at the time, and Carmichael admitted to sending the messages but claimed his judgment had been impaired by medication.
Still, the LKSD assistant superintendent was concerned enough to request that troopers seize Carmichael’s work laptop and iPad and search them for possible child pornography. Detectives found no illegal pictures but confirmed Carmichael had sent the messages, calling them “clearly inappropriate and concerning.”
The principal was not charged with a crime because, according to a statement by the school district, troopers at the time did not find evidence that he explicitly solicited the child for sex.
It’s unclear, though, why the investigation didn’t trigger action against his license. Any sexually charged behavior toward a student or recent student can cost an educator his or her job.
“The threshold is much, much lower for protecting students in the classroom than in a criminal court,” said Melody Mann, executive director for the teaching standards commission.
A High Rate of Sexual Misconduct
Linguists have said the vast Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta where Carmichael worked is one of the only places in the state where Alaska Native children still grow up speaking Native languages. Village and tribal leaders here have led the fight for fishing rights, equal school funding and public safety.
When the Alaska Department of Public Safety compares sexual assault rates across the state, it includes the riverfed villages of the delta, the icy Arctic villages of the northwest and the seafaring Aleutian Island communities as a single region labeled Western Alaska. More teachers have been charged with sexual misconduct here, per capita, than any other region.
The most common victim of sexual abuse is a 15-year-old girl, the public safety department says, and she is almost always preyed upon by someone she knows.
In Tuluksak, 35 miles upriver from Bethel, the tiny local school district agreed to pay $2 million in 2014 to the families of nine girls who said they were sexually abused by a shop teacher. To the frustration of many in the Yup’ik village of 361, the teacher, Martin A. Bowman, was never charged with a crime but surrendered his teaching certificate in 2015, writing, “I understand that exposing one’s self and inappropriately touching female students while in one’s residence is a violation of the code of ethics of the education profession and grounds for revocation.”
Two years after that, Alaska State Troopers found 2,000 images of child pornography on the work laptop of another Tuluksak teacher, John Paul Douglas. He pleaded guilty to a felony and lost his teaching license in 2018.
About 150 miles downriver from Tuluksak, where the wide and slow Kuskokwim yawns open into Kuskokwim Bay, is the village of Kwigillingok, population 374. There, Bethel prosecutors charged a history and language arts teacher with sexual abuse of a 15-year-old student in 2015.
The teacher, Michael Wier, then 31, denied wrongdoing but pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of harassment. He worked for the same school superintendent, Walker, as Carmichael did. (Wier surrendered his teaching license.)
District staff members and teachers are trained to report concerns, Walker told the Daily News at the time.
“We put him on administrative leave immediately,” Walker said of the Kwigillingok teacher. “Obviously we take that very seriously.”
In Alaska and elsewhere, teachers and principals answer to two authorities. Police investigate reports of sexual abuse and, if prosecutors believe there is enough evidence to win at trial, criminal charges are filed in state court.
But educators must also hold a valid teaching or school administrator certificate to work in the state, and that license can be taken away for behavior that might not be criminal but is unethical for a person who has power over and access to children.
Under Alaska law, forbidden “sexual conduct” between teachers and students is broadly defined and includes much more than physical sexual abuse. Ethics rules state teachers cannot tell children explicit jokes and stories, write flirtatious messages, engage in “sexual kidding or teasing” or even make “sexual innuendos or comments with double entendre.”
Educators who become aware that another teacher or administrator has broken those rules must report the violation to the Professional Teaching Practices Commission. The regulatory board can vote to suspend or revoke the educator’s work license — even if no criminal case is ever filed.
In the case of Carmichael, a second complaint surfaced just two years after troopers investigated his messages to a 14-year-old girl. This time, the victim was younger. And this time, the girl said, he had begun to touch.
A Second Allegation Against Carmichael
In early 2018, an 11-year-old child told her mother that Carmichael “looked down at her breasts and then touched her breasts with his hand.”
The student said the principal then smiled and walked into the same office where two years earlier he promised his boss and state troopers that he would not send inappropriate messages to students.
Bethel police learned of the encounter on Feb. 12 and obtained a warrant that allowed investigators to record a phone call between the second girl’s mother and Carmichael.
In the call, the mother confronted Carmichal about the groping. The principal said he “was probably joking around and wrestling the kids.” Any touching must have been an accident.
Two weeks later, a Lower Kuskokwim School District administrator met with law enforcement about accusations against Carmichael for the second time in two years. This time, instead of state troopers, it was the Bethel chief of police. Instead of the assistant superintendent, police met directly with Walker, the superintendent, to talk about the investigation into Carmichael allegedly touching a student’s breast.
Carmichael was once again placed on paid leave. The principal once again he said the allegations were all a misunderstanding. Current school board member Wassillie Pleasant said the school district didn’t inform the board of this investigation either.
Walker said that the district investigated the complaint and chalked it up to a mistake. An “interscholastic sporting event” had been underway at the school at the time, and visiting athletes were moving their bags into Carmichael’s office.
As part of the district investigation, the girl was asked to reenact what happened, and she demonstrated how Carmichael had been swinging his arms and the back of his hand brushed against her, “sweeping up from her stomach to her chest as he walked through the door,” Walker wrote.
Bethel police say they referred the case for prosecution but, at the time, it was not considered a very provable case, said acting Police Chief Amy Davis. Charges were not filed. Carmichael returned to work within three weeks.
It’s unclear, and the school district on April 23 refused to say, whether the school district reported the 2016 and 2018 allegations of sexual misconduct to the state regulatory board. Most Bethel parents knew nothing of either accusation.
A Region With a History of Abuse
When a school district fails to protect students from predatory employees, it can cost millions.
One of the Bethel-based attorneys who filed the Carmichael lawsuit recently won a $12.6 million settlement and an apology from another Western Alaska school district.
In that case, nine girls — 6% of the local population — said they had been sexually abused by a teacher in the tiny community of Wales. Like the villages where Carmichael worked early in his Alaska career, Wales rests on the icy shores of the Bering Sea coast. The village of 150 people is closer to Russia than to any major Alaska town.
In this era of mandatory hand-washing, the village is on a long list of Alaska communities that are still waiting for indoor plumbing and most buildings have no running water. The school is one exception.
As in many Alaska villages that can only be reached by plane, the schoolhouse doubles as a community center, a source of reliable Wi-Fi and regular breakfast and lunch service. (More than a third of the population is below the poverty line.) There, longtime teacher’s aide and district technology specialist Amos Oxereok admitted to two counts of sexual abuse of a minor.
“He molested a whole generation in the village. Whatever the sentence, let Amos not ever come into contact with any young kids,” one Wales resident testified at his 2018 sentencing, according to the Nome Nugget.
The civil case came later. Parents and victims testified the Unalakleet-based Bering Strait School District knew Oxereok had targeted students for years. One family said three of their daughters had been among the victims.
“It made me feel like I was different and I wasn’t safe,” a victim testified at a February 2019 hearing in Nome, the newspaper there reported at the time. “I was scared when he touched me.”
As part of the settlement, the Bering Strait School District agreed to train employees to spot warning signs that a fellow educator might be grooming a child for abuse.
In Alaska, the failure by some school districts to protect students comes in the same regions where Jesuits sexually abused children with impunity in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Some of the priests worked in village schools or regional boarding schools. A wave of lawsuits beginning in the 2000s bankrupted the Diocese of Fairbanks. One lawsuit brought by 110 Western Alaska victims settled for $50 million in 2007.
School attorneys who research sexual misconduct say districts have much to learn from how churches mishandled early abuse cases. For churches, the recipe for failure was neglecting to train employees about predatory behaviors, instinctively trying to cover up abuses when revealed and “misguided trust in individuals who should not have been trusted with second chances,” according to research presented at the 2016 School Law Practice Seminar in Portland, Oregon.
The training program for the Bering Strait School District says there are telltale signs that sometimes precede the abuse of students: An adult befriends a child and makes the child think he or she has a special connection to the adult. The predator’s aim is to lower the child’s natural inhibitions and set the stage for physical abuse.
The Bethel-based school district where Carmichael works is also training employees to watch for potential signs of abuse, the superintendent said Monday.
“The training is brand new to Alaska and new to most other states in the nation,” Walker wrote.
“He Was Very Skilled at Grooming People”
When a third victim complained about Chris Carmichael, the behavior she described was textbook “grooming,” according to the training manual.
Described in criminal charges as “Victim C,” she was a seventh grader who had recently graduated from Carmichael’s elementary school. She revealed that during the same school year Carmichael was accused of touching an 11-year-old’s breast, he had also been groping her breasts in school closets and in his office.
He told her he liked to choose areas where he would not be seen by security cameras, she said.
Bethel police learned of the new victim in June 2019, around the same time the state department of education renewed Carmichael’s certificate to work as a school principal for another five years.
This time, investigators did not take their information to the school district, which had kept Carmichael on the job after each of the prior investigations. Instead, Bethel police quietly partnered with FBI agents based in Anchorage to launch an undercover sting.
The girl told the investigators that Carmichael had befriended her as his student between third and sixth grade and stayed in touch after she graduated elementary school. She was in seventh grade when he began squeezing her breasts and rubbing her upper thigh, she said.
“This touching usually occurred later in the afternoon after the teachers and staff had gone home,” the state felony charges against Carmichael say. The principal gave the girl his cellphone number. He asked her to call him “daddy” and to keep their relationship secret.
The girl’s mother told police Carmichael had made a habit of giving the girl and her family gifts, including a king-sized bed and paint.
Bethel parent Mary Peltola, a former state lawmaker whose children are not involved in the case, said Carmichael once bought presents for her own fifth grade daughter. Peltola felt uncomfortable about the presents, she said.
“I think that he was very skilled at grooming people,” Peltola said. “Little gifts like that I think were paving the way.”
In order to determine if Carmichael paid for gifts using his school district credit card, or if he ever traveled on school-paid trips out of town with students, the Daily News and KYUK have requested Carmichael’s spending records beginning Jan. 1, 2014. In response, the district said it would only provide the information if the newsrooms paid $1,700 in research fees. (The newsrooms have declined to do so and are appealing the fee.)
The same day the newsrooms made that request to the district, current Gladys Jung Elementary Principal Joshua Gill, who was the director of personnel when Carmichael was still principal, sent an email to advisory school board members telling them to keep quiet.
“The best answer is ‘No Comment,’” Gill wrote. “Please let me know if you have any questions.”
Rather than comply with the district’s instructions, one of the board members, Dalarie Peters resigned.
“Transparency’s something that’s really important to me and with that major barrier there, I just don’t feel like I can serve the people that voted for me,” Peters said.
Peters says the email is just the latest example of the school district’s effort to end public discussion about Carmichael’s alleged misdeeds.
“They keep everything so hush-hush,” Peters said.
An Undercover Sting and an Arrest
By the fall of 2019, the third and final investigation into Carmichael was about to spill into view. Bethel police had obtained another search warrant and, posing as one of Carmichael’s former students, began to chat online with the school principal.
“IWU,” “IMU, “ILU,” Carmichael wrote during the chats, believing he was talking to the girl who said he groped her repeatedly at the Bethel elementary school closets. I want you, miss you, love you.
Later, believing he was texting the 13-year-old cousin of the former student, Carmichael asked what the girl had done sexually with boys and asked her if she had masturbated. He’d masturbated thinking about her, he said.
Delete these messages, the principal would warn.
On Dec. 2, 2019, an FBI agent, posing as the 13-year-old, phoned Carmichael in a recorded call. The principal knew his messages could trap him and told her he would have to pretend he thought she was 18.
“We all have our naughty little things we like doing,” Carmichael said in one recorded call. He believed that the 13-year-old’s father wasn’t living at home. When he’d heard her dad wasn’t around, it made him want to adopt her, he said.
“I love you exactly how you are and exactly how old you are,” he said in a Dec. 8 call recorded by investigators. “You are perfect for me.”
He’d be traveling to Anchorage soon, he said. Maybe they could meet.
They could go to the mall together, Carmichael proposed, and she could pretend to be his daughter. They could shop at Victoria’s Secret and then go back to his downtown Anchorage hotel where he would shower with her.
In explicit detail Carmichael told the agent, still believing she was a 13-year-old, the ways in which he planned to sexually abuse her. In the following days the FBI arranged for Carmichael’s third victim, the girl he is charged with abusing in a closet at the elementary school, to make a recorded call of her own to the principal.
As the girl held a stuffed animal and the FBI listened in, Carmichael told her he planned to visit her at a hotel in Bethel. He had to be careful because he was being watched, he said. Someone from the police department had visited him earlier in the day, and he believed his messages were being read.
In fact, he said, maybe the girl could send him a message claiming he had touched her breasts by accident to help keep him out of trouble. Carmichael didn’t want to go to jail and “put her through that public humiliation,” he said.
When the call ended, authorities confronted Carmichael at his Bethel home and read him his rights. He was arrested at about 1 a.m. Dec. 11. In an interview with law enforcement he admitted to having a sexual attraction to children.
Hours later, after Bethel woke to news the well-liked principal had been arrested, a reporter for Bethel public radio station KYUK interviewed district superintendent Walker about the case.
“We were blindsided by it,” Walker said.”We did not have any prior knowledge that they were conducting an investigation.”
The FBI had indeed kept the undercover sting from the school district. But Walker had met with Bethel police two years earlier when the 11-year-old said the principal groped her. He had been working at the school district when Alaska State Troopers investigated Carmichael in 2016, meeting with district officials about their findings and searching his computer at the district’s request.
“You hadn’t heard anything, not from police but from members of the community or staff or anything like that?” the reporter asked. “You haven’t heard anything about Chris Carmichael before this incident?”
“We did not know anything prior to that,” Walker replied.
Confronted with this apparent inconsistency, Walker stood by his earlier remarks in a May 8 statement.
The superintendent said he couldn’t answer certain questions about Carmichael, however, because of a pending lawsuit. Two of Carmichael’s former students sued in December, saying the district allowed the Gladys Jung Elementary principal to abuse them despite repeated warnings about his behavior.
The parents argue that the Lower Kuskokwim School District “had a duty to exercise reasonable care in the hiring, retention and supervision of its employees.”
The district is contesting the suit, contending that no abuse occurred.
Awaiting trial on sexual abuse of a minor charges, Carmichael’s next hearing is scheduled for June in Bethel.