Former Fontenelle Elementary Principal Eric Nelson had already pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor over his failure to report abuse by a teacher at the Omaha school.
But that didn’t stop attorneys from feuding during a sentencing hearing Monday over the validity of the charge.
In fact, the hearing took on the tenor of a trial — albeit a trial conducted via videoconferencing software, with Nelson and his attorney, Steve Lefler, appearing behind surgical masks.
Before Nelson was sentenced to two weeks in jail and one year of probation, Lefler rattled off several defenses of his client’s failure to go to authorities once two staffers raised alarms about first grade teacher Greg Sedlacek’s behavior with little girls. Under state law, adults, especially school and medical officials, are required to report if they have reasonable suspicions that a child has been abused.
“It’s all nonsense,” prosecutor Molly Keane said of Lefler’s defenses. “Excuse after excuse after excuse. If Mr. Nelson wanted a trial on this matter, he should have had a trial.”
It was a bit of a trial by broadband Monday. What no one disputed: that Sedlacek was the predator, having admitted to molesting six first graders in his short stint at Fontenelle. Sedlacek is serving 40 to 65 years in prison.
But when it came to Nelson’s handling of the matter, the two sides squared off over several matters, including:
OPS’s hiring practices
Lefler blasted the Omaha Public Schools for hiring Sedlacek in the first place. Sedlacek had a history of inappropriate behavior that led to his removal from an assistant teaching job at the Red Cloud Indian School on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
He also was dismissed from a Catholic seminary in 2014 after an official from the Red Cloud school contacted the Archdiocese of Omaha about Sedlacek’s problems with observing boundaries with children.
Lefler noted that Nelson had no role in vetting Sedlacek. OPS’s central office should have, he said.
“All they had to do was check his records,” Lefler said.
Keane said such backgrounding has nothing to do with why Nelson failed to contact authorities about Sedlacek in November 2018. Two staffers had reported that they saw Sedlacek sitting on the end of a slide with a girl in his lap and his hand under her dress. They went to Nelson.
She noted that Nelson not only didn’t act, he also resisted and resented an assistant principal’s concerns about Sedlacek.
After not addressing the matter that November 2018 day, Nelson went to a doctor’s appointment the next morning. When the staffers returned to school that morning, they were shocked to find Sedlacek in his classroom before school, tutoring first grade students. An assistant principal, Cheryl Prine, contacted authorities.
When Nelson arrived, he ordered Prine into his office. She said Nelson was upset and angry and told her that it wasn’t her school and that “a man’s career was on the line.”
The filing of charges
in this case
Lefler said former Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Wellman, a prosecutor, had reviewed Nelson’s actions and concluded that the case “never would have seen the light of day” in his time.
Keane’s response: Wellman is Nelson’s godfather so his opinion is biased. Keane said she filed based on Nelson’s lack of action in the face of obvious abuse.
The lack of charges
in other cases
Lefler pointed out that this newspaper has detailed the inaction of school administrators in several cases. Of note, Lefler pointed out that former Davis Middle School Principal Dan Bartels was not prosecuted for his handling of teacher Brian Robeson, who is serving 20 years in prison for repeatedly sexually assaulting a 14-year-old student. Lefler also noted that no Marian High School administrators were prosecuted for failing to report behavior by former assistant basketball coach Andrea Lightfoot.
Keane didn’t address Davis’ case, although a federal judge threw out a civil lawsuit against Bartels and OPS in that case. The prosecutor did address the Marian case, noting that the statute of limitations had passed because Lightfoot’s victim did not report the matter for seven years. Lightfoot, now known by her married name of Knecht, is serving 10 to 15 years in prison for abusing a 14-year-old girl.
“It’s slightly confusing to me who gets prosecuted in these cases and who doesn’t,” Lefler said. “It’s not even some get prosecuted and some don’t. Eric Nelson is the only (administrator) who got prosecuted.”
Lefler said three retired OPS principals told him that OPS’s reporting policy left them confused. The previous policy, since abandoned, required the principal or an administrator to do some investigating before contacting either police or Child Protective Services.
Lefler argued that Nelson had two strange but not clearly criminal photos that had been brought to him by the teachers and was trying to line up the photos with surveillance video of the playground. He had yet to get through that surveillance video. Not even 24 hours had passed since the initial report.
Keane said the reporting law is clear.
“His focus was on protecting himself and Gregory Sedlacek, not this little girl,” Keane said. “He had every opportunity to get that man out of the classroom, to review that video. He didn’t think it was worth his time.”
Lefler said Nelson had 20 letters of support, including from former OPS Superintendent John Mackiel. Mackiel described Nelson — the son of one of his top assistants — as an “inspirational principal.”
Lefler also noted that more than 500 people had signed an online petition to reinstate Nelson as principal.
Now, Nelson is a woodworker.
“OPS is the loser that he is no longer an educator,” Lefler said.
Nelson didn’t address the judge.
He “struggles with the fairness of it all,” a probation officer wrote, after interviewing him. “Nor will he ever truly accept that his actions were criminal.”
The mother of one of Sedlacek’s victims summed up the matter best, Keane said.
Nelson “took what was already an unimaginably bad situation and made it worse,” the mother wrote. “He chose to protect a pedophile over my 7-year-old daughter.”