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ABSS files motion to dismiss lawsuit over decades-old claim of sexual abuse by Graham High School teacher

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The Alamance-Burlington school board has filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed early last year by a former Graham High School student who claims he was sexually assaulted by a male teacher at the high school more than 20 years ago, in 2000.

The suit was filed in early 2022 by David Knighten, the former Graham High School student, who claims he had been a student in an English as a Second Language class, when his teacher Jose Luis Alegria, offered him a ride home and ultimately touched the then-16-year-old Knighten inappropriately.

“Alegria made a detour to his personal residence” and took the 16-year-old boy into his bedroom, where he fondled Knighten’s “genitals underneath his clothing,” Knighten alleged in the suit he filed against ABSS and Alegria early last year.

Now in his mid- to late-30s, Knighten claims that the alleged sexual assault by Alegria has caused him ongoing emotional pain and suffering, as well as severe mental and physical injuries.

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Last month, ABSS filed a second, renewed motion to dismiss the complaint, after a new summons was served on the board on March 6, as well as in November 2022. ABSS initially filed a motion to dismiss the suit in December 2022; the motion filed last month was a “second, renewed motion to dismiss.”

Alegria, the former ABSS teacher named as a codefendant in the suit, also filed a motion to dismiss earlier this year, based on his contention that he not only didn’t assault Knighten – but that he and Knighten had been in “a dating relationship for multiple years” that began around 2003 or 2004.

“This was years after Knighten had graduated high school and was over the age of 18,” Alegria counters in his motion to dismiss. “Alegria has continued to assist [the plaintiff] monetarily even after this complaint was filed,” the alleged perpetrator states in his motion to dismiss. Alegria is also seeking dismissal on grounds that Knighten’s suit hinges on a pending ruling regarding the constitutionality of an extension of the statute of limitations provided by a state law enacted in 2019, the Sexual Assault Fast reporting and Enforcement Act, or the SAFE Child Act.

The SAFE Child Act increased the statute of limitations for civil suits to age 50 for any victim who claims to have been sexually abused as a minor, according to the North Carolina Department of Justice.

The attorneys for Knighten and ABSS agreed last year to a joint stay of all proceedings in the case, pending a ruling on the constitutionality of the SAFE Child Act, based on an order that Alamance County senior resident superior court judge Tom Lambeth, Jr. entered in June 2022, which is included in the court file.

The N.C. Supreme Court agreed last year to review a ruling by the Court of Appeals that overturned the so-called “revival window” for child sexual abuse claims. A ruling on the constitutionality of the provisions within the SAFE Child Act remains pending, based on documents filed with the state Supreme Court.

ABSS has based its motion to dismiss the suit on its claim that the school board has governmental immunity from the claims and on its belief that the underlying extension of the statute of limitations, provided by the 2019 SAFE Child Act, is unconstitutional.

ABSS also outlines several additional reasons why its motion to dismiss should be granted: the complaint is a civil action for child sexual abuse that allegedly occurred in 2000 and was “time-barred”; it subjects the school board to claims that had previously been barred by the statute of limitations; and that Knighten has failed to state a claim on which relief may be granted.

In its motion for dismissal, the board contends it is immune from civil legal liability – for such things as breach of fiduciary duty, assault/battery, and/or intentional infliction of emotional distress – and that the 2019 law “did not revive negligence claims,” or claims “against entities like the board, only alleged perpetrators.”

In an initial response filed last year, the school board denied any culpability in the alleged actions by Alegria. Knighten is seeking an unspecified amount of damages against ABSS for allegedly having failed to properly train and supervise Alegria during his interactions with students.

The school board asserts in its latest filings that the plaintiff, Knighten, does not claim to have informed the board or any ABSS employees of the alleged assault when it occurred.
Instead, Knighten alleges “a single incident of sexual misconduct…which, if proven, would fail to show that the board was deliberately indifferent to ongoing harassment,” the school board states in its motion for dismissal.

Alegria, the alleged perpetrator, earlier this year filed an answer to the complaint, as well as his own motion to dismiss on grounds that the 2019 law is unconstitutional.

For his part, Alegria denied that he ever touched the plaintiff, Knighten, “inappropriately or in a sexual manner” while volunteering with ABSS as a tutor for Spanish-speaking students who spoke English as a second language, according to his response. “It is denied that a sexual assault, or assaults, by Alegria took place,” the defendant contends. “It is denied that any conduct of Alegria caused physical harm to the plaintiff [Knighten].”

The court file lists Knighten’s address as being in the care of his attorneys, the Lanier Law Group in Greensboro. According to public records, the plaintiff appears to reside in Efland.

Alegria’s address is listed as 3991 South N.C. 49, Burlington, based on a copy of the latest civil summons included in the court file. He is being represented by Graham attorney Jeff McMillion.

The school board is being represented by Daniel F. Smith and Lindsey S. Barber of the Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey & Leonard law firm in Greensboro.

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