A Douglas County jury convicted a former Omaha middle school teacher of only one of four inappropriate relationships he was accused of having with former students.
But the three acquittals were little consolation to Shad Knutson. The 36-year-old former teacher at Nathan Hale Middle School began crying Friday as he was led off in handcuffs, facing at least three and at most 55 years in prison.
And the three acquittals were little vindication of the Omaha Public Schools' handling of the matter, the jury foreman said in an exclusive interview with The World-Herald.
Jurors “believed there were threads of truth to each girl's statements,” the foreman said. However, he said, the jury of three men and nine women didn't feel like authorities had enough to corroborate the three girls' accounts.
For that, the foreman said, observers can thank OPS' former policy of handling such reports in-house. In turn, the Omaha police investigation was delayed — making it more difficult to accumulate the necessary proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
“We were disappointed in the amount of investigation from OPS,” said the foreman, a 29-year-old student and mechanic who didn't want his name used. “We understand it was their protocol. But it seemed like there was mass miscommunication within OPS. We were very disappointed in how it was all handled.”
They weren't the only ones.
Outside court, the father of one of the first students to complain about Knutson called for charges to be brought against OPS officials for failing to report the child abuse. In the least, the father said, school leaders and human resources personnel should “lose their jobs.”
School officials, including Nathan Hale Principal Susan Colvin, have been quick to point out that they were following the district's former child-abuse reporting policy — a policy that has since been changed.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine had considered charging officials with failure to report child abuse but ultimately decided against it.
On Friday, Kleine stood by that decision. He said he had two priorities: convicting Knutson — which required testimony from the administrators in question, and getting OPS to change its policy.
The school district now adheres to a state law that requires that a report be made to law enforcement or Child Protective Services within 24 hours of when anyone, including any school employee, “has reasonable cause to believe that a child has been subjected to child abuse or neglect.”
At the time OPS employed Knutson, district officials said they believed that they had to perform their own investigation to determine whether there was reasonable cause.
Administrators also acknowledged in court, however, that they had no training on how to perform such investigations.
Testimony at Knutson's two-week trial showed that OPS failed to follow up on initial reports about Knutson's behavior.
Human resources didn't investigate one girl's claims that Knutson had made lewd comments, had touched her, had exposed himself to her and had asked her for sex acts. Colvin testified that she found that girl's story implausible — and transferred the student to a different school.
Within a month, another girl, then 13, came forward and said Knutson asked for a picture of her breasts. Colvin testified she found that girl credible. However, human resources closed its investigation by returning Knutson to the classroom.
In October 2010, almost a year later, a student council member came forward, saying Knutson had touched her breasts and dared her to grab a pen he placed near his crotch.
The girl's mother called authorities after school officials declined to.
That mother sat in the front row Friday and squeezed her husband's hand as Clerk John Friend read off the verdict on the first three counts.
“We the jury duly impaneled. . .do find said defendant NOT GUILTY of Count 1....NOT GUILTY of Count 2....NOT GUILTY of Count 3..”
The woman began to cry.
Knutson's family and friends, who had sat behind him throughout the trial, let out a few quiet exclamations. One man pumped his fist.
Then Friend read Count 4 — the most serious charge: “GUILTY” of sexual assault by communication device. And Count 5: “GUILTY” of child abuse.
Knutson dropped his head to the defense table. Kleine moved to revoke his bail.
Knutson's attorney, Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley, argued that he remain free — saying Knutson wasn't a flight risk.
However, District Judge Duane Dougherty noted that Knutson faces a minimum of three years in prison and could be a risk to flee or to harm himself.
Dougherty ordered Knutson to jail — and sheriff's deputies led a crying Knutson out of the courtroom.
Unlike the other allegations, the foreman said, authorities had ample evidence to corroborate the last two charges — both of which related to Knutson's months-long relationship with a former student.
For one, the foreman noted, Knutson and the girl, then 14 and 15, had more than 27,000 phone contacts in a little over 10 months — an average of nearly 90 a day. For another, those phone contacts abruptly ended once police began questioning the girl.
And finally, the foreman said, Knutson took the stand and offered no counter to the girl's powerful testimony.
She quietly cried and repeatedly questioned why she was there, claiming their relationship was consensual. State law prohibits adults from having sexual relationships with anyone 15 and under.
Kleine noted the irony: Knutson was convicted over the relationship with the one girl who didn't want to see him held responsible.
The three other girls wanted him prosecuted — and he was acquitted of those charges.
One of those three watched Friday's verdict from the back row. She had spent her day off from school at the courthouse, waiting for the verdict.
Afterward, she said, she was a bit bummed that jurors hadn't convicted him of her charge. She said it felt a bit like when OPS officials “betrayed” her by putting Knutson back in the classroom.
Kleine was quick to reassure her. “This isn't a rejection of you,” he said. “The jury's just saying we didn't have enough proof in your case.”
She nodded, biting her nails.
“I'm just glad he's going to prison,” she said. “That's the important thing.”
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