Former Grain Valley teacher is sentenced to 15 years in prison for abusing his students

04/25/2013 6:37 PM

05/16/2014 3:48 PM

Matthew Nelson stood and put his hands behind his back.

A sheriff’s deputy snapped a pair of handcuffs on them and led him through a nearby door.

And most of those who had filled the Independence courtroom, whispering or silent for much of the previous hour, burst into fierce and sudden applause.

That’s how Nelson, a former teacher of the year who last month pleaded guilty to 16 counts of child sexual abuse, started the 15-year sentence imposed Thursday by Jackson County Circuit Judge Michael Manners.

“It’s not enough,” the mother of one of Nelson’s former third-grade students said outside the courtroom. “It’s not nearly enough for what he did.”

The sentencing hearing proved an emotional end to the ordeal experienced by 11 eastern Jackson County boys and their families since January 2012, when authorities arrested the Grain Valley elementary school teacher on multiple child sexual abuse charges.

Last month, Nelson pleaded guilty to 16 counts of abuse involving the boys, who had attended Prairie Branch Elementary School. A plea agreement called for Nelson to serve 15 years in prison on each of 15 counts and seven years on a 16th count, with all sentences to run concurrently.

Manners stuck to that agreement Thursday.

None of the students whom Nelson pleaded guilty to abusing were present in the Jackson County Courthouse Annex courtroom Thursday. But their sentiments still were heard through letters read by their parents.

“My life is not as good as it used to be,” wrote one student.

“I didn’t have the anger that I do now. I have a question to ask him: ‘Why did he do this to me, and why did he think it was OK?’”

“I thought he was my friend,” read a letter from another student. “I think to myself ‘Why did he pick me?’

“I can’t stand him. I hate him. I think Jesus will want me to forgive him, but I can’t right now.”

The mother of one student produced a snapshot of her son and asked that it be given to Manners so the judge could look at it while she described how her son often insisted upon wearing long pants to school even in warm weather while attending Nelson’s class.

“He said, ‘Mom, I just need to wear pants now,’” the mother said. “He was trying to protect himself.

“I feel like I served my child up to Matthew Nelson on a silver platter.”

The woman thanked prosecutors and others assisting in the investigation, saying the case represented proof that “no voice is too small.”

Other testimony was offered by a grandmother of one of Nelson’s former students.

“Our child has had his innocence taken by Mr. Nelson’s actions,” she said.

It used to be, she added, that when the community’s children had nightmares involving monsters, they were imaginary “green” monsters.

“Now when your child wakes up crying in the night, it’s because of a monster that is real.”

Nelson, aside from softly saying that he had signed a particular document as part of the sentencing procedure, said nothing during the proceeding and sat with his back to the gallery, much of which was filled with the students’ family members.

J.R. Hobbs, representing Nelson, told Manners that Nelson’s parents, as well as other family members, had accompanied him to the courtroom.

“Nobody should be judged solely on the lowest points of one’s life,” Hobbs said.

“The defendant has accepted responsibility through his plea of guilty. By doing that, he has avoided an emotional trial for the victims and their families. The plea of guilty also allows for finality. There will not be an appeal.”

Nelson, Hobbs added, had no prior convictions. He described the 15-year sentence as “significant.”

Authorities arrested Nelson, now 34, after several students said that the teacher 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.

After prosecutors initially filed statutory sodomy and child molestation charges based on allegations by four children, authorities asked any other victims that might exist to come forward. Additional charges followed the next month, and a grand jury later added more criminal counts.

In a letter released the month after Nelson’s arrest, 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.

Nelson pleaded guilty to incidents that occurred from August 2008 through January 2012, according to documents filed by prosecutors.

Last month, an elementary school student and her parents sued the Grain Valley School District, alleging negligence in its supervision of Nelson. The lawsuit alleges that Nelson abused the girl when she was a second-grader in the 2011-2012 school year. The suit named him, the school district and several district administrators.

The family is alleging negligence, negligent supervision and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

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.

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.

After the hearing, the aunt of one of Nelson’s former students said that while many of the parents believe Nelson should have had to serve even more time behind bars, his guilty plea eliminated the need for a trial.

“A lot of the parents are glad that their children will not have to go through that.”

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