Matthew J. Nelson, a former Teacher of the Year who taught elementary school for 10 years in Grain Valley, pleaded guilty Wednesday to sexually abusing 11 boys.
A plea agreement calls for 15 years in prison on each of 15 counts and seven years on a 16th count, with all sentences to run concurrently. Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Michael Manners scheduled sentencing for April 25.
Spectators, including many family members of the victims, filled the courtroom during the 35-minute hearing at the Jackson County Courthouse Annex in Independence. Some held hands and softly shook their heads while others stifled an occasional sob.
Nelson, dressed in a dark suit, kept his eyes fixed downward as his lawyer, J. R. Hobbs, read through each count, identifying each victim by his initials.
He answered “Yes” to each charge, once dabbing his eyes with tissue.
“I don’t think there can ever be enough time,” Nelson said when Manners asked whether he had been given enough time to speak with his family regarding the plea agreement. He then confirmed that he had received sufficient time.
The victims’ family members declined to comment after the hearing.
Nelson pleaded guilty to five counts of first-degree statutory sodomy, involving victims less than 12 years old.
He also pleaded guilty to 10 counts of first-degree child molestation and one count of attempted first-degree child molestation, all involving victims less than 14 years old.
Authorities arrested Nelson, now 34, in January 2012 after several students alleged that he had touched their genitals either through or inside their clothing. According to court records, one student had described Nelson as “huggy” while another had described how Nelson would “snuggle” with students on a classroom couch during movies.
At the time Nelson had taught second- and third-grade students at Prairie Branch Elementary School in the Grain Valley School District.
Prosecutors filed initial charges based on allegations made by four children. Grain Valley authorities then said there could be more victims and asked any to come forward.
Additional charges followed in February.
In a letter released that month, school district officials said that a “concern” regarding Nelson had been brought to their attention in 2008.
The allegation originated in an anonymous report called into the Missouri School Violence Hotline maintained by the Children’s Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services. District officials said they discussed the allegation with Nelson at that time but added that the “generic nature” of the report didn’t lead them in any particular direction.
The incidents of abuse that Nelson pleaded guilty to on Wednesday occurred from August 2008 through January 2012, according to documents filed Monday by prosecutors.
In 2007 Nelson was recognized as a local Teacher of the Year, an honor offered through the Wal-Mart Foundation. The Missouri House issued a resolution recognizing the honor that year.
Before his arrest Nelson also served as an assistant coach of the Grain Valley High School boys’ soccer team for three years. In spring 2011, he was an assistant coach of the girls’ high school soccer team.
On Wednesday a Grain Valley School District spokesman reiterated that school officials remain ready to hear any concerns of district parents.
“The process we put in place in January of 2012, of being responsive to the concerns or questions of parents, remains open,” said Brad Welle, assistant superintendent for academic and student services.
“If parents have questions or concerns, they can contact the district office and we will do what we can to support them.”