Raleigh, N.C. — Jurors in the criminal trial of Brandon Smith, the former headmaster of a Zebulon charter school, heard for a third day Wednesday claims of unwanted sexual advances and inappropriate touching – including testimony from a former teacher who says he hugged her while he was sexually aroused.
The teacher, whom WRAL News is not identifying because of the nature of the charges, said the encounter with Smith happened when she and he were alone for a moment at a school event in November 2011 – four months before Smith was fired from the position he held at East Wake Academy for nearly 10 years.
"He had an erection," the teacher said during tearful testimony.
"How did you know?" Wake County Assistant District Attorney Melanie Shekita asked.
"Because I could feel it pressed up against me, and he made the comment, 'Do you see what you do to me? And now, I have to go back out there,'" the teacher replied.
It wasn't the first time Smith made such comments, she said, and never did she do or say anything that would have signaled she wanted something more than a professional relationship.
Smith is charged with two counts of sexual battery and two counts of assault on a female in connection with the teacher's claims, as well as the similar accusations by another school employee who testified Tuesday that he pulled down her pants without her consent to see a tattoo on her lower back.
On another occasion, while eating lunch alone in her classroom, the teacher testifying Wednesday said Smith walked in as she was getting ready to take a bite. Instead of continuing on, however, she put down the food.
"He told me, 'No. I like the way you wrap your mouth around that sandwich,'" she said. "He asked me if he could hold it. I said no and tried to redirect the conversation."
The defense contends that the teacher's claims are financially motivated because of civil litigation brought against him in response to a defamation of character lawsuit Smith filed against her.
During cross-examination, attorney James Hairston questioned her at length about the hug and her initial written synopsis for police about "unwanted touching."
"Nowhere in that document do you mention to anyone in the world the word 'erection' or anything close to the fact that he had one," Hairston said.
The woman responded that her statement was brief and her choice of words was because she was uncomfortable describing the details.
"That's exactly what I meant by that," she said.
Several other teachers – who are not the subjects of the criminal complaints – also testified about similar behavior that Smith displayed toward them.
One recalled a time during an after-school event in the school gymnasium in which he kissed her while they were out of the view of others.
"As uncomfortable as it was, I didn't feel comfortable saying anything, because he's a superior," she said. "He was in a position of power, and I was also afraid to rock the boat, because I knew that I was on his good side and that's where I knew I needed to stay if I wanted to stay at East Wake Academy."
Other witnesses have echoed the testimony, saying Smith created an atmosphere of intimidation in which they feared for their jobs.
"He made it clear that he was in control, and it was his way or the highway," a school employee testified Tuesday.
On cross-examination, however, the other witnesses have said Smith acted inappropriately but never touched them in a sexual way – an element required for the criminal charges that he faces.
The state, however, is using the testimony to establish a pattern of behavior by Smith – something that still continued toward the teacher after the hug in which he was allegedly sexually aroused.
By December 2011, the teacher said, the situation had reached a point that she was ready to quit but that she stayed on because she had no other source of income.
In the months that followed, the teacher testified, she became physically ill, was unable to keep down food, missed work as a result and had several stays in a local hospital.
After discovering another teacher at the school was claiming Smith pulled down her pants, she went to the charter school's board of directors to complain.
"I wanted him to stop. I didn't want to have to keep going to school and feeling like I did," the teacher testified.
A civil lawsuit, she said, was never a factor in her decision, and money was never a motive.
"I didn't want this to happen to me anymore," she said. " I didn't want it to happen to anyone else."