Both sides claim potential win in school settlement
STEUBENVILLE – Both sides in the case involving the principal of the Pugliese West Elementary School claim they would have won if the case had not been settled before jury selection began Wednesday.
Lynnett Gorman was charged with a misdemeanor count of failing to report child abuse or neglect in April 2012.
The case will be dismissed against her if she completes 40 hours of community service. She also will speak to other teachers and administrators in the Steubenville City School District on the subject of recognizing and reporting child abuse and child neglect. The settlement statement also states Gorman has encouraged the school board to have a speaker from the Ohio Alliance Against Sexual Violence come to the middle school and high school in April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Defense attorney Dennis McNamara of Columbus said, based on the facts, the case would have resulted in a not guilty verdict or the judge dismissing the case prior to jury deliberations.
But Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said attorneys on his staff would have proven the state’s case.
Teachers are among several professions required to report suspected child abuse or neglect.
McNamara said the duty to report only applies when he or she is serving in her official capacity and not when he or she receives information as a neighbor, friend or concerned parent.
“The evidence at trial will establish that Lynnett Gorman heard about teenagers drinking and/or engaging in sexual conduct, and she inquired into this to determine if her son, then a junior in high school, had been present,” McNamara said in his pretrial brief. “She talked to longtime friends and other parents. She learned that her son was not present. And she learned that the parents of the teenagers who were there had been made aware of the situation. Because she was involved as a parent, and not in her official capacity as an elementary principal, she will be entitled to a judgment of acquittal at the conclusion of the state’s evidence.”
McNamara said Gorman had no actual knowledge or direct evidence of teenage drinking and sexual conduct occurring in April 2012. He said the disputed issue at trial would have been whether Gorman had reasonable cause to suspect that child abuse had occurred.
“High school students engaging in consensual sexual conduct is certainly inappropriate behavior,” McNamara said. “But it is not criminal, and it is not child abuse. High school students consuming alcohol is also bad behavior, but if no adults are involved, there is no reason to suspect child abuse in either case.”
“It is just children behaving badly,” McNamara stated after the hearing on Wednesday.
McNamara said he was under the impression that neither side was going to comment on the Gorman case after the settlement statement was read by visiting Summit County retired Judge Patricia Ann Cosgrove in a Jefferson County Common Pleas courtroom.
He refused comment after the settlement statement was read, referring to the stipulation he believed was applicable to both sides.
DeWine’s office put out a press release an hour after the hearing with comments from the attorney general.
“The resolution reached today is in the best interests of the Steubenville community as the area continues to heal and move forward,” DeWine said. “Ms. Gorman will be part of the work that is being done in Steubenville to educate students and school officials about the seriousness of sexual assault and the need to report these incidents.
“We want something positive to come out of this tragedy.
“The interests of the community are served by having the principal acknowledge that she should have done things differently. And, she acknowledges how very important it is to report child abuse and neglect. This will make a difference in the future. The reality is that because the charge was a fourth-degree misdemeanor, and she has no prior record, had this case gone to trial, the most that could possibly come out of this is that she would have been sentenced to a short amount of jail time, with no acknowledgment that she did things wrong and no ability to move forward.
“We want to change the culture. This is about the long-term healing of the community. And I believe this resolution is an important step.”
A special grand jury called by DeWine investigating aspects of the Steubenville High School rape case returned the indictment against Gorman and three others in November.
Steubenville City Schools Superintendent Mike McVey was named in a five-count indictment charging one count of tampering with evidence and two counts of obstructing justice, both felonies. McVey also was indicted with two misdemeanors including one count of falsification and one count of obstructing official business.
The indictment claims McVey allegedly committed crimes starting on April 5, 2012.
Seth Fluharty, a wrestling and conditioning coach and teacher at Garfield East Elementary School, was indicted on one count misdemeanor regarding reporting child abuse or neglect on Aug. 13.
The grand jury named former volunteer high school football coach Matthew Belardine on four misdemeanor counts including allowing an underage person to consume beer or liquor, obstructing official business, falsification and contributing to the unruliness or delinquency of a child.
DeWine, after the issuance of the press release, said nobody should read into the Gorman case as to what may happen in the other cases.
“This was a fourth-degree misdemeanor. Other (cases) have significant felonies,” he said.
DeWine said Gorman is a well-respected principal, with no criminal record.
He said Gorman will do her community service at a sexual assault center.
The settlement agreement in Gorman’s case states Gorman believes that she committed no crime. “She also believes that if she had the ability to go back to April 2012, she would have acted differently,” according to the agreement.
DeWine said, “She has continued to say what she did was not a crime. She has every right to say that. We believe we could have proven the case.”
DeWine balked at the belief that neither side was going to comment after the settlement agreement was read.
“I never agreed not to say anything in addition to what was in the (settlement agreement). I’m not going to turn down a reporter’s questions. What I have said is consistent with the agreement. I’m not inferring she was guilty. I certainly have the right to speak with the media. I would never entertain such an agreement not to talk,” he said.
(Law can be contacted at email@example.com.)