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Elliott found not guilty

Courier-Tribune - 8/12/2017

Aug. 12--ASHEBORO -- A former Southwestern Randolph High School teacher has been found not guilty of misdemeanor sexual battery.

Cheers arose from supporters in Courtroom 4C when the verdict was announced. Others seemed stunned and remained quiet.

The case of Jarret Elliott came Friday before District Court Judge Jayrene Maness, who handed down the verdict, saying to the defendant that she found "beyond a reasonable doubt that you are not guilty."

Elliott had been charged in April after a student took a photo of a male student appearing to sit on the teacher's lap. The photo was blown up large enough that those in the court gallery could see most details.

Witnesses for the state included three students, including the one in the photo, the principal of Southwestern, the stepfather of one of the girl students, a detective and two school resource officers. The prosecution's case revolved around the photo as well as horseplay said to be normal in Elliott's classroom.

Assistant District Attorney Jodi Allred tried to show that Elliott's actions, particularly with the alleged victim, met the elements for sexual battery, including being forced against the will of the victim and using force to "touch him because he liked it."

Defense Attorney Jon Megerian countered that the totality of the evidence showed the opposite, that nothing happened in secret, there were no sexual favors or abuse. "No witness has said there was a sexual nature of the contact."

How it began

The two girls testifying for the prosecution said they had gone to Principal Shon Hildreth to complain about Elliott touching male students. One said she initially complained about Elliott correcting her, saying, "You can be a smartass at home but you can't be a smartass here," after she admittedly had been making fun of him. Later, Elliott said he had used the term "smart butt."

Then when her cousin came to the school office, they went back to Hildreth to complain about touching in class. The first girl said she had seen the teacher grabbing boy students in the front and back areas during class. She said they were playing.

She said when she talked to her stepfather, Travis Hyatt, about the touching, he advised taking a photo when it was happening. Then on April 24, Brown took the photo that showed the boy appearing to be getting up from Elliott's knee with Elliott's hand on his buttock.

When Hyatt took the stand, he affirmed that he advised the girls to take photos, rather than "telling without proof. I was concerned about his career. I didn't want to accuse him so I asked the girls to take photos."

All through the trial, witnesses said Elliott's touching was only with boy students, not with girls. Some of the male students also played on his athletic teams and had close relationships with him, according to testimony. The word "horseplay" came up multiple times during the trial.

The second girl said the day she took the photo, the victim had gone up to Elliott's desk to ask a question. She said Elliott pulled the student into his lap and held his butt. "I took the picture and sent it to my aunt." It was later shown to investigators with the Randolph County Sheriff's Office.

Horseplay or abuse?

Hildreth testified that teachers at Southwestern watch training videos, including one on sexual harassment. Elliott had signed off on watching the video, he said, adding that the video says that any contact with students, including touching or sitting on laps, is problematic and not permitted in school.

After meeting with the two girls' complaints, Hildreth said, he went to the Randolph County School System Central Office with the photo. An interview with the victim followed and the student said he felt uncomfortable on Elliott's lap.

Megerian asked Hildreth if there had been any problems with Elliott in six years and Hildreth said no, there were no complaints on his record.

In redirect by Allred, Hildreth said horseplay in class is a violation of school policy.

Megerian then asked Hildreth if he sees coaches slapping players on the butt. Hildreth drew laughter from the audience when he said, "Not any more."

The victim, a sophomore at the time of the incident, said he observed touching between Elliott and students in the classroom. Much of it was a back-and-forth and "touching all over."

Asked by Allred if Elliott touched him, he said, "Yes, he sat me on his lap during class when I went up to ask a question."

"How many times?"

"Twice."

The victim said he was on Elliott's lap until the question was answered and then he went back to his seat. He said he felt uncomfortable but didn't say anything.

Upon cross examination by Megerian, the victim admitted that he attended three rallies in support of Elliott. He also agreed that when a detective asked him if Elliott touched him inappropriately, he said no.

"You told investigators it was mostly playing around, sometimes with athletes," said Megerian. "You told detectives it's just the type of person (Elliott) is. Is that still true?"

"Yes."

The victim told Megerian that when he was on Elliott's lap there were 20 or more other students in the room.

One other time when the student was on Elliott's lap, the two school resource officers came in. Both were questioned about the incident.

Dep. Brian Arrington, SRO at Southwestern High School, said when he noticed a young man on Elliott's knee, his silent reaction was "What are you doing?" Elliott explained to him that he was telling what the boy had done wrong in his homework.

"I tried to get out of the situation by using humor," Arrington said. "The kids laughed, but I didn't think it was funny. Then I left."

Although Arrington said he had never seen a student on a teacher's knee before, he said he thought it would be different if it were a girl.

Dep. Chris Allen, SRO at Southwestern Middle School, had followed Arrington into the classroom. He said at first he was shocked, then thought maybe the boy was a family member of Elliott's.

"Everything seemed comfortable," said Allen. "Nobody seemed shocked by my appearance."

Det. Eric Wilson of the Randolph County Sheriff's Office had interviewed Elliott on a couple of occasions to follow up on the complaints.

He said he talked to Elliot about what he considered appropriate behavior with students, including physical contact. Wilson said Elliott told him he joked a lot with students and had horseplay with them. But the slapping, tapping and flicking was done only with boys.

"He told us he was reacting back at a student, the horseplay went both ways," said Wilson.

Elliott responds

Elliott was shown the photo later in the interview, Wilson said, and asked why he allowed the boy on his lap. Elliott explained that the boy had had a hard life.

Later, Wilson said, Elliott called him to ask if the investigation would go away if he resigned his position. "I told him that would have no bearing on the case," Wilson said.

He described the victim as "shy, very timid, not forthcoming. He said being on Elliott's lap was uncomfortable, that he didn't want to do that."

On cross examination, Megerian asked Wilson if the boy said he was not intimidated by Elliott. Wilson said yes.

Megerian then questioned Wilson about his interview techniques, specifically about asking leading questions. "I didn't feel like they were leading," Wilson said.

Megerian began his defense by calling a student who played football under Elliott, who said he could see what happened that day.

"(The boy) sat on his knee, asking about his work," the student testified.

"Was he afraid?" Megerian asked.

"No."

Looking at the photo, the student said that Elliott had told the boy to get up, that it was time to get to work.

"Was he groping?"

"No."

During cross examination, Allred asked the student if anyone else sat on Elliott's lap. He said no.

He also testified that the boy put himself on Elliott's lap.

Another student also said the boy got on Elliott's knee "just as a joke," and Elliott would have him get down.

During cross examination, Allred asked if other students got on Elliott's lap. He said no.

Megerian then called Elliott to the stand and asked about his relationship with the boy. Elliott said the student had tried out for JV basketball the year before but didn't make the team. This year he did.

Elliott said he also watched the student play tennis.

Looking at the photo, Elliott said the boy had come to ask a question and "popped down on my knee." He said in the photo he was "getting him off my knee."

Megerian asked Elliott if he was homosexual or heterosexual. Elliott said heterosexual.

He asked Elliott why he didn't touch female students. He said, "It's the way I was raised, don't have that interaction with females."

When asked if he ever had one-on-one time with the boy, Elliott said, "No, there are 24 kids in class."

He added that the day the photo was taken, it was senior picture day and there were older students coming in causing "a lot of commotion."

Elliott testified that he had had very few complaints from parents, none for sexual matters.

During cross examination by Allred, Elliott was asked about his reaction when the student sat on his lap. "I don't want to embarrass a kid by yelling to him to get up," he said. "That can cause a scene. We talked, he got up and that's the end of it."

"You never put him on your knee?"

"No."

Elliott said that in today's society a teacher could "put yourself in a bubble" with no physical contact with students. "That would be sad for the kids' interaction with teachers."

In his closing argument, Megerian argued that the evidence showed no sexual favors and no sexual interest in boys by Elliott. He said nothing happened in secret and that there was no sexual arousal.

"Touching can be misconstrued," Megerian said. "It's not a crime unless it's for sexual arousal or abuse. All the evidence shows it's not."

Allred recalled that the boy "said he didn't want to be there. We have testimony that Elliott picked him up and put him on his lap. The boy said he was glad to be able to go back to his seat."

She said teachers were in a "position of trust," with the implication that Elliott failed to provide that trust.

"(The boy) wanted to talk about his work," she said. "Elliott put him on his knee. I don't believe Elliott's testimony is believable. There are many ways to move a student -- touching the buttock is not one. He touched him because he liked it."

Maness then gave her not guilty verdict and the Elliott supporters erupted.

Reactions

Megerian said afterward that it's "always hardest to try a case like this when you know your client is innocent," alluding to the chance of a guilty verdict. "I'm very happy."

Outside, where supporters were celebrating in front of TV cameras, Elliott said he was grateful for the support of the community, including student rallies.

"A lot of people go their whole life and not know their impact on people," he said.

He credited "my faith and family, the support of the kids in the community" for helping him get through the situation.

Asked what's next in his life, Elliott said he would take a few days for vacation, then return to "think about it."

Lathe McDuffie, Southwestern Randolph High School student body president, said, "I'm proud of the way the community stood behind him. I'm proud to be a Cougar today.

"I hope Elliott can possibly go back to teaching kids."

On another note, Sandra Johnson, grandmother of the girl who took the photo, said she had asked Elliott to "take responsibility and restore this community. His actions put him in this place. He should accept responsibility. He chose to play with his students."

Johnson also said she didn't think the state had enough evidence for a conviction.

"People (supporting Elliott) have said they pray for me every day," said Johnson. "Why can't we pray for the community every day?"

She added that her granddaughter "has suffered a lot and had threats against her."

___

(c)2017 The Courier-Tribune, Asheboro, N.C.

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