Less than two months after Deonte Carraway was hired as a teacher's aide for an elementary school in Prince George's County, a fourth-grade student complained about his behavior to an administrator.
"You need to check Deonte's phone," the student told one of the school's top officials, a new court filing shows. "There's some things with kids on it, nasty things."
The administrator dismissed the student's concerns and did not investigate, saying Carraway had a "clean record," according to a lawsuit filed against school staff members and the county school board.
Hundreds of pictures, dozens of videos and 23 victims later, the student turned out to be right.
That early warning from a child in December 2014 was one of numerous alarms from students, teachers, parents and guardians that administrators at Judge Sylvania W. Woods Elementary School ignored or dismissed, the lawsuit asserts. The school leadership's failure to act on the complaints enabled Carraway for the next 15 months to abuse children in hundreds of incidents, the lawsuit states, until he was arrested and pleaded guilty this year to state and federal sex abuse and child pornography charges.
The sexual abuse Carraway inflicted on students at Woods Elementary has been widely publicized after the scandal that shook Maryland's second-largest school district broke in February 2016. But documents filed in court this week offer the first detailed insight into how Carraway — a man in his early 20s who regularly showed up at the Glenarden school in his pajamas and by his lawyer's account had an IQ of 63 — leveraged a friendship with the school principal and a "total lack of supervision" on campus to gain unlimited access to his victims.
Despite recurring complaints about Carraway's overly familiar and disturbing behavior, then-Principal Michelle Williams continued to allow Carraway to have influence at the school and a path to recruit and bolster his out-of-school contacts to create an "unchecked breeding ground for abuse," an amended complaint filed Monday in Prince George's County Circuit Court asserts. His authority through the school expanded the circle of children whom he sexually abused and whom he choreographed to perform sex acts that he recorded on his many cellphones, the lawsuit states.
Civil actions against education authorities track events detailed in many of the criminal charges but also expand on Carraway's immature, disruptive, aggressive, inappropriate and predatory behavior already outlined in the child pornography cases.
Williams had "absolutely no knowledge of the abuse of any children at Judge Sylvania Woods Elementary School at anytime before February 4, 2016 when two relatives of a student brought a student's cell phone to her," according to a statement Tuesday from her lawyer, Mark T. Foley.
The statement said Williams immediately reported the incident to police and child protective services and "coordinated the initial efforts to assist law enforcement agencies."
"Contrary to the allegations of the recently amended lawsuit for money damages, Principal Williams did not encourage or foster an environment to permit any abuse," the statement says. "She is saddened by the abusive conduct and hopes that these students and their families achieve emotional and psychological healing."
Seven months after Carraway was hired in November 2014, Williams spoke with him about his "inappropriate contact with students in private places inside the school building," a copy of an email included in the lawsuit shows.
"During our conversation we discussed the importance of using good judgement when interacting with students," Williams wrote in the message dated June 15, 2015, according to the court complaint. "You were advised to only engage students in conversations in areas that are in plain view of the public. This practice will ensure that actions or conversations that could be deemed inappropriate do not take place."
Carraway was allowed to keep working eight more months before he was arrested.
Even after that admonition, the lawsuit contends, Carraway continued patterns of abusive and inappropriate behavior that the school board and Williams enabled or "at a minimum were deliberately indifferent to."
County school officials said Tuesday that they have made concerted efforts to step up reporting of suspicious activity.
"Student safety remains a top priority of Dr. Maxwell and the Prince George's County Board of Education," said John White, a spokesman for the school district, referring to Kevin Maxwell, the school district's chief executive. "Since 2016, the school system has taken important steps to investigate the incidents and strengthen procedures for protecting children in all of our schools."
Carraway was laid off as a paid aide in September 2015 but continued as a volunteer with free range at the school until his February 2016 arrest. As a volunteer, he maintained a faculty badge, a copy of which is in the court filing. The credentials conveyed to staff that he held sway with the principal and to students that he was an authority figure, according to the lawsuit.
Carraway was allowed, the court filing says, to pull students out of classrooms at will, fill in as a substitute teacher, promote his community children's choir, supervise an overnight student trip, create a "male mentoring group" and walk children to their homes, the lawsuit alleges.
As part of his school responsibilities, the lawsuit says, Carraway was assigned the task of "organizing the closets throughout the school," which his criminal pleas acknowledged became among the sites of his assaults.
The lawsuit cites specific complaints by staff members who reported Carraway touching children unnecessarily, accompanying them into bathrooms or passing them candy.
"Multiple students reported Carraway's inappropriate and abusive conduct to Principal Williams and teachers, yet no meaningful investigation or action was taken," the lawsuit asserts.
The suit, which seeks unspecified damages, does not indicate whether any members of staff took complaints beyond the principal to higher officials in the school system.
Several lawsuits filed by the firm Joseph Greenwald & Laake, including a class-action complaint, contend that the school board and staff members are liable for emotional and physical injuries to the children because the failure to report suspected child abuse under state law enabled Carraway's "predatory conduct" and created an unsafe school environment.
Timothy F. Maloney, an attorney representing the families, declined to comment.
Carraway, 24, is serving a 75-year federal prison sentence after he pleaded guilty in January to 15 child pornography charges. Separately, he was sentenced in September in Prince George's County Circuit Court to 100 years on 23 counts of child sex abuse and pornography.
Authorities said Carraway coerced children as young as 9 to send him explicit images through social media or to perform sex acts for him to record at school, in public facilities and in private homes. Carraway also engaged in some sex acts with children, according to his criminal plea — which the lawsuit also alleges.
Since the case broke, Prince George's schools officials have not commented on what went wrong at the school or how Carraway managed to have so much time alone with children during the school day.
Maxwell, the school district's chief executive, said early on after Carraway's arrest that he was shocked and appalled by the allegations, and he created a task force that recommended improvements in training and procedures across the district in May 2016. The report did not mention Carraway or lapses at the school. Maxwell has repeatedly said there was no evidence of a systemic problem in the district.
Carraway's admissions of abuse became part of a string of complaints alleging that the school system fails to heed whistleblowers.
Months after Carraway's arrest, the district lost $6.4 million in Head Start funding after a parent reported that her 3-year-old son's teacher had forced him to mop up his own urine as punishment. The mother went to federal authorities, saying the school system had been unresponsive to her concerns.
Last month, a state investigation found that grades for nearly 5,500 students in Prince George's were changed days before graduation in the past two years. The investigation was ordered after four members of the school board wrote a letter to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) saying whistleblowers had come forward with evidence of grade manipulation aimed at increasing the graduation rate.
The latest filings in the Carraway lawsuit say Carraway appeared at the school seeking to work with children. Despite being unqualified, he was hired in November 2014, the filings state.
According to the lawsuit, Williams "pulled strings" to get Carraway on the payroll and failed to secure the two background references required for the job. When the school board reminded Williams in December 2014 that it had not received references, one of Williams's subordinates sent a letter. A second letter was never obtained.
After Carraway's arrest, school officials said he had passed background checks.
Teachers regularly complained to Williams and other administrators about Carraway, who was often seen skipping through the halls like a child and carried a backpack full of candy for the children, the complaint said.
"Kids have my heart," Carraway said at his sentencing in August. "When I'm around kids, I feel like a child."
Teachers told administrators that he disrupted instruction, instigated fights among children, and physically and verbally bullied students. In one instance, Carraway gave a student he was sexually abusing candy and a present in the middle of her fifth-grade class.
When he was not in classrooms, he would pull children out of class over teachers' objections, the lawsuit states.
"Both teachers and students became afraid to challenge Carraway's conduct because of his known friendship with the Principal and the use of her name," the lawsuit claims.
When a counselor noticed Carraway alone in the bathroom with a student in 2015, the lawsuit says, Williams confronted the student: "Don't do it again because he could touch you."
After a student told a counselor that Carraway recorded him and another child urinating on each other in the bathroom, the counselor reportedly responded, "I'll deal with it. Go back to class." The student was later suspended, according to the suit.
The mother of another student at the school reported one day overhearing Williams instruct certain staff members to tell parents who called the office about Carraway's conduct that "we don't have proof" and "it's a rumor."
Carraway was not arrested until February 2016, after a student's uncle discovered inappropriate photos on the student's phone. The lawsuit says the uncle reported and showed the photos to Williams and another administrator and was told to return to the school the following day for another meeting.
Instead, the uncle went to the police that night.
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.