WHEELING, W.Va. — A former Ohio County teacher who had four children with a former student agreed to an Alford plea Tuesday and was sentenced to 1 to 5 years in prison.
Elizabeth Harbert, a former teacher at Bridge Street Middle School and Wheeling Park High School, entered the plea to third degree sexual assault. The Alford plea allows a case to result in a conviction without the defendant actually pleading guilty.
Harbert and Christopher Birch began a relationship in 2005 when she was approximately 30 and he was 15. A criminal complaint said they had sex at least 50 times while her husband was at work. Birch moved in with Harbert while he was in middle school.
Criminal charges were filed earlier this year.
Ohio County Assistant Prosecutor Shawn Turak told MetroNews the unique circumstances of the case made it risky to go to trial.
“Through no fault of the victim but because of his gender, because of the passage of time, I had a concern the jury pool that could potentially set in judgment of the case may not consider him to be a victim,” Turak said.
Birch filed a civil lawsuit against Harbert in April claiming he was sexually and mentally abused by Harbert. Ohio County Circuit Court Judge Jason Cuomo dismissed all of the defendants in the case with the exception of the Ohio County Board of Education. He ruled the specific claims by Birch against Harbert came after the statute of limitations. The judge also removed current Ohio County Board of Education member Christine Carder as a defendant in the lawsuit. She was principal at Wheeling Park during part of the time Harbert and Birch were there.
The civil case is going forward against the school board.
“Justice comes in many forms, and Chris Birch is pleased and grateful that his civil case will proceed against the Ohio County Board of Education,” Teresa Toriseva, Birch’s attorney said after that June ruling.
Turak said Tuesday she couldn’t speak to anything on the part of who knew what when about the longstanding relationship.
“I don’t know why it wasn’t or was reported (at the time),” Turak said, adding the prosecution moved forward when the case after receiving a report earlier this year from the Ohio County school superintendent.
MORE read original criminal complaint here
Third degree sexual assault is what’s considered statutory rape, Turak said.
“She’s above the age of 16 (when the sex first occurred). He’s below the age of 16 and in fact, she’s at least four years older than him,” Turak said.
The plea and sentence also requires Harbert to register the rest of her life as a convicted sex offender. Turak said that’s a significant part of the plea deal.
“There is a heavy hammer that is over all registered sex offenders for the rest of their lives if they do in fact violate. If they fail to register change of address, change of employment, change of phone number. That was one of the main reasons why I thought this was a very, very good outcome,” Turak said.
Harbert is scheduled to self-report to jail on Sept. 3.