Jury finds former Kentucky middle school teacher not guilty of sexual abuse
Published 5:42 am Friday, February 11, 2022
A 12-person jury took just less than two hours to find a former Kentucky middle school teacher not guilty of sexual abuse on Wednesday after three days of testimony in Franklin Circuit Court.
Forty-five-year-old Todd Joseph Smith, who previously taught seventh grade science and math at Bondurant Middle School, sobbed in his parents’ arms following the verdict being read by Judge Phillip Shepherd.
“They presumed me guilty. I feel like I got justice here today,” he told The State Journal shortly after.
“No one should be victimized the way I was accused.”
Smith was indicted on two counts of first-degree sexual abuse, a Class D felony, in 2019 after two female students alleged that he squeezed their buttocks on separate occasions during the 2018-19 school year.
Having grown up in Florida, Smith previously taught college-age students at Lake Superior State University in Michigan and the University of Pikeville, St. Catharine College and Morehead State University in Kentucky.
After substitute teaching in Anderson County Schools during the 2017-18 school year, Smith, who was looking for a more permanent position completed classes at Eastern Kentucky University during the summer of 2018 in order to obtain his temporary teaching license.
He was hired by Franklin County Schools in July 2018 — roughly one month before the school year began and just a few weeks after receiving his provisional teaching license.
During opening statements at Smith’s trial, his attorney, John Olash, admitted middle school teaching didn’t come easy to his client.
“Todd struggled with how to manage his class,” Olash told the jury. “He had some troubled students, some who were educationally disabled. Most were good students but for about four or five of them he had to change the seating to keep them apart.”
Because The State Journal does not name or identify juveniles, the females who made the allegations of sexual abuse and the witness who testified to observing one student’s account of the reported incident will be known in this article respectively as Mary, Heather and Patty. All three are now 15 years old and were 12 when the alleged abuse occurred.
The commonwealth called six witnesses including both female students that made the allegations, their mothers, a juvenile eyewitness, Franklin County Sheriff’s Captain and former school resource officer Montey Chappell and Frankfort Police Department Captain Scott Morgan.
During Mary’s testimony on Monday, she claimed that Smith walked behind her chair while the class was participating in group experiments at different tables — called stations — throughout the classroom at the start of the school year. She estimated it was about two weeks after school began.
“I was at the station and he grabbed my butt,” she said, stating that he set his hand on her buttocks but didn’t squeeze.
Mary explained that no one else saw it happen and that Smith didn’t say anything after the alleged incident occurred.
“I didn’t expect it to happen,” she added after telling Franklin County Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Zach Becker that it made her upset and uncomfortable.
According to Mary, she told a friend, whose name she couldn’t remember, shortly after the incident, but did not alert school administrators, staff or her parents.
“I was scared to tell my mom,” she stated. “I didn’t know what would happen.”
On the stand Monday afternoon, Heather testified that Smith came up behind her and touched her buttocks on March 14, 2019. At the time, she said the class was also doing stations and that she was sitting sideways in her chair with both feet on the ground when the reported abuse happened.
“(It was) a full grab of my butt,” Heather stated.
“So, a squeezing motion,” questioned Becker.
“Yes,” she replied.
Patty, who was sitting closest to Heather, testified as an eyewitness to the incident.
According to Patty’s account, Heather was sitting on her knees when Smith went behind her and grabbed her buttocks.
“I told her we had to go to the office,” Patty said.
The pair asked permission to go to the counselor’s office and then the principal’s office, but Smith, who testified that students needed to have an appointment in order to visit the counselor or principal during instruction time, denied their requests.
Heather and Patty then sought permission to use the restroom and Smith granted it. Instead of heading to the restroom, the pair visited the office and asked to see the counselor, who was not in. So they asked to speak with Bondurant Middle School Principal Whitney Allison.
“We told her what happened and she had us act it out,” Patty told the jury.
Per Patty’s testimony, Heather was herself and Patty pretended to be Smith during the reenactment of the incident. The students were also required to make a written statement and sign and date them.
In her statement, Patty wrote that she saw Smith’s hand “tense up” when he walked behind Heather.
After taking their written statements, Allison sent the girls back to class.
When asked why she reported the incident, Heather said “because I wouldn’t want that to happen to anyone else. It shouldn’t happen to anyone else.”
Under cross-examination, Mary testified that she heard what had happened to Heather in the hallway around lunchtime and told her that the same thing had happened to her.
“I knew I wasn’t alone,” Mary said as to why she came forward months later.
Mary’s mother, who took the stand for the prosecution, stated that shortly after dinner on March 14, 2019, Mary told her that her teacher had “grabbed her butt.”
Mary, who didn’t want to reenact it on her mother’s buttocks, showed her using her shoulder instead. Mary’s mother described it as “a snug grab.”
“I was mad, angry, hurt, sad — all of those emotions,” her mother told the court. “I felt sick to my stomach and thought I was going to throw up.”
Mary’s mother, who admitted her daughter had assumed the principal had already contacted her regarding the incident, added that her daughter didn’t tell her about the alleged touching because she didn’t want anyone to get in trouble.
After failing to get ahold of anyone at Bondurant, at 6:47 p.m. that same evening Mary’s mother called 911 to report the incident and two Frankfort police officers responded to their home to take a report.
Her mother said Mary told her on a Thursday and the following day Smith was still in the classroom.
According to Mary’s mother, the first time she heard anything from school authorities was on the following Monday, when Chappell, the school resource officer at the time, reached out to schedule a meeting at Bondurant with Allison, FCS Superintendent Mark Kopp and his assistant.
When Mary’s mother asked Allison why she wasn’t contacted by school authorities about the allegation, she said the principal told her the incident needed to be investigated in order to protect her teachers.
“Your job isn’t to investigate. Your job isn’t to protect your teachers. Your job is to protect my child,” her mother stated. “That’s my baby and if she wasn’t going to protect her, I will. I will do whatever I have to to protect her.”
Heather testified that she told her mother that Smith touched her buttocks on the evening that it supposedly occurred. Her mother corroborated the story saying Heather told her around 4:30 p.m. on March 14, 2019.
“I was an emotional wreck. She went into detail about the whole situation and I asked her to do to me what he did to her and immediately called the school,” Heather’s mother said on the stand.
Unable to reach anyone at Bondurant because it was after school hours, she called the next morning and left several messages for Allison. When she did get ahold of the principal, she was told that the incident was under investigation.
“I went to Bondurant on Monday morning,” Heather’s mother stated and a sign-in sheet from the school served as evidence of her visit.
“I hadn’t heard anything from the school and I wanted to know what was going on.”
Under cross-examination, Heather’s mother told the jury that her daughter was sitting on one side of the chair with one leg underneath her and her butt hanging off the chair when Smith reportedly grabbed her buttocks. She also testified that Patty had witnessed the touching.
Chappell, who was the school resource officer for all the westside schools at the time, testified that he received a call from dispatch on March 15, 2019, and was asked to call Mary’s mother because her daughter had been inappropriately touched by a teacher. He said Heather’s mother had contacted him on March 18, 2019, and informed him that her daughter had been touched as well.
“I realized then that I had not one but two victims,” he said, adding that he called dispatch to start another case for Heather.
That same day, Smith was suspended and 36 days later he was told his contract with the school district would not be renewed.
Chappell told the jury that Smith maintained his innocence and stated that he never touched female students and hadn’t the entire time he was employed at Bondurant.
While being cross-examined by Olash, the defense attorney, Chappell remarked that both victims’ statements were consistent, but according to his testimony to the grand jury when Smith was indicted, Chappell admitted that it was 50-50 as to whether the female students were telling the truth.
Chappell reported that Heather told him she was sitting with one leg underneath her when the alleged touching occurred. She also said to him that four other students had witnessed Smith touch her buttocks, but only Patty claimed to have seen it happen.
A written statement from one of the reported witnesses said, “I’m not sure if he actually did or not though.”
Smith took the stand in his defense on Tuesday and said the 2018-19 school year got off to a bad start.
“I had a number of boys pull me aside and nonchalantly tell me ‘don’t be offended, but we’re gonna get you fired. So be on your guard, we’re coming for you,’” he remarked, adding that the students had also gotten a number of sixth-grade teachers fired the previous year.
When asked about Mary’s testimony that he touched her buttocks within the first few weeks of the new school year, Smith testified that it couldn’t have possibly happened then because the lesson that she claimed the students were doing at the time wasn’t taught in August.
“It would have had to have been five or six weeks after Sept. 14,” Smith stated.
He added that Mary was a good student and on one occasion, which he estimated occurred in January or February, she had asked to stay after school to work on a project she was behind on.
“She certainly had no problem trusting me,” Smith told the jury.
He also claimed that the chairs the students were sitting in were so low to the ground that he “couldn’t possibly physically squeeze anyone’s bottom.”
Under cross-examination by Becker, Smith testified that when he was called into an interview with Chappell he was told it was because of a slander case. In regards to that interview, Smith said Chappell “made it clear he was only going to find evidence to prove guilt.”
During closing arguments, Olash pointed out that Chappell’s investigation was botched. He said the fact that Mary reportedly told a friend, but couldn’t remember who it was affected the case for three years.
“All Chappell had to do was interview all the girls in the class,” Olash stated, adding that Mary never came forward with the name of the friend she told until about two weeks before the case went to trial.
When Chappell interviewed the supposed witness, she said Mary told her about the incident in the middle to end of the school year, which is contrary to what Mary testified.
“I think she didn’t give a name because her version would be debunked very quickly,” Olash said.
“These girls are working together,” he added. “I hate to say collusion, but that’s what I’m alleging. I don’t think this is legitimate.”
Olash also stressed that his client has lost everything because of the allegations and had been working at Pizza Hut.
In his closing statements, Becker told the jury to look at the testimony and evidence.
“Remember, the only reason we are here is because of those mothers. Those mother bears are going to protect their cubs. Those parents who know their children — they believe them,” he added.
“There’s no reasonable doubt about the defendant’s guilt. He laid his hands on those kids.”
When the jury, which was composed of six men and six women, returned a not guilty verdict less than 120 minutes later one of the fathers of the alleged victims stormed out of the courtroom after saying, “That’s bullshit.”
As for Smith, he told The State Journal that he would like to return to teaching, but not children.
“They already made it clear that my license wouldn’t be granted regardless of how the case came out,” he stated.