GRAIN VALLEY, Mo. – A popular suburban Kansas City elementary school teacher who also helped coach children's soccer teams has been charged with molesting four boys in his second-grade classroom, and police say they are looking for other possible victims.
Matthew J. Nelson, 33, has taught second- and third-graders at Grain Valley elementary schools for a decade and was honored in 2007 as the local "Teacher of the Year." He also was an assistant coach for boys and girls soccer teams.
"That's our fear: the potential there could be more victims out there," said Grain Valley Police Chief Aaron Ambrose.
Nelson was charged Wednesday with one count of first-degree molestation and three counts of first-degree statutory sodomy. Jackson County prosecutors say Nelson sexually abused four boys, ranging in age from 7 to 9 years old, from Aug. 1, 2010, through Jan. 6 of this year at Prairie Branch Elementary. Prosecutors allege he fondled the children, usually during movie or quiet reading time.
Nelson was suspended from his teaching job on Jan. 9, once Grain Valley school district officials were informed that a young boy had told his mother Nelson was "huggy" and had fondled him through his clothing during class.
Under Missouri law, a person can be guilty of first-degree statutory sodomy for fondling a child younger than 14 for the purpose of sexual gratification.
Nelson pleaded not guilty to all counts and was being held on $250,000 cash-only bond. As of Thursday, online court records did not list an attorney for him, and a spokesman for the Jackson County prosecutor's office said it wasn't immediately clear who was representing him.
Brad Welle, Grain Valley assistant superintendent for academic and student services, said the district has brought in extra counselors, an outside consultant and a psychologist to meet with parents and students. It also set up a call center to respond to questions. Welle said the district was leaving it up to parents to explain to their children what had happened with Nelson.
"As far as in the classroom, that's not a discussion we're having at school," he said. "What we're trying to do, given the age of the kids, is give parents the information and the support they need."
Traci Summerlin, president of the school's Parent Teacher Organization and a parent of children in the school, praised the district's response to the claims and its willingness to talk to parents.
"I feel all parents and staff at Prairie Branch Elementary are shocked and saddened by the events of this week," she told The Associated Press in an email. "We also realize this can happen anywhere. That's why it is very important to talk to your children at an early age about what is appropriate touch and what is not appropriate touch."
Welle said Prairie Branch is "one of those places where it's almost kind of the ideal little neighborhood school." It opened in 2005, and the teachers consider themselves part of a larger family. That's why word that one of their own might have committed unthinkable crimes against young children hit them so hard, he said.
"Shock is the overwhelming reaction we are getting," he said. "People are frustrated, scared, curious. ... There are a lot of different ways people are reacting, all of which is to be expected."