PERRY, Okla. - A fifth grade math teacher and an elementary school principal are facing criminal charges after failing to report accusations of sexual abuse against their students.
Kenda Lyn Miller, 51, and Jeffrey Sullins, 51, each face misdemeanor counts after turning themselves in Thursday.
Police arrested 85-year-old teaching assistant Arnold Cowen last month on accusations he inappropriately touched at least seven girls.
Now, the assistant chief tells NewsChannel 4 at least 20 children may have been victims, likely over the course of several years.
At least 10 students may have been victimized in 2017, according to court documents, when Perry Upper Elementary School Principal Miller dismissed past allegations and failed to notify police or the victim's parents.
"If we’d have got that call, the very first complaint, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you today," said Assistant Police Chief Forrest Smith. "It’s very troubling."
Students as young as 10 complained Cowen fondled them and touched their breasts, according to arrest affidavits, sometimes during "lengthy hugs and inappropriate touches."
According to court documents, Miller fielded multiple complaints from students but told them they had to be accidental.
"Principal Kenda Miller tells her that it’s possible, that Cowen has long arms and, when he reaches around to hug her, his long arms touch her boobs," one student told police, according to the affidavit. "Principal Kenda Miller tells her to refrain from hugging Cowen and to only ‘fist bump’ him."
As a result, students told police they were afraid to tell their parents about the interactions and often would cry in the bathroom.
During interviews with other teachers, police were told "Cowen was definitely the victim of false accusations and he was a model instructor and of great help to the school.”
The principal "believed these reports to be false, since she knew Cowen to be of great moral character and was a very 'nice guy,'" the affidavit said.
Police said, when Sullins was told of inappropriate touching, he told the student she was "making stuff up," at one point taking her into the hallway and calling her a liar, documents show.
“[The student] was escorted to the office to see Principal Kenda Miller, but since she was not available, [the student] was sent back to class, where she continued to work with Cowen," according to the affidavit. "Sullins did allude to the fact that a majority of the teachers were aware of the incident/accusations.”
Both posted $500 bond and were released.
Miller appeared in court Thursday morning but did not say anything.
She refused to answer questions after the hearing.
Her attorney told NewsChannel 4 she will answer all questions in court.
The district attorney's office lobbied to increase Miller's bond to $10,000, but a judge denied it.
The Perry Police Department said the investigation is ongoing.
"I personally feel that, as we continue this investigation, slowly, we will have more victims start to appear," Smith said.
He expects other teachers may be implicated and charged for failing to report abuse.
The Perry School District released this statement later Thursday:
"The Perry School District tries to do its best to provide an environment which is conducive to learning, is safe, and which protects our students. Because of this, the District is saddened by the charges filed against the Upper Elementary Principal and a teacher. The District has not seen a copy of the charges, so it cannot comment on the specific charges and allegations contained therein. As stated before, the District has cooperated, and will continue to cooperate, with the Perry Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office in their investigation and criminal prosecutions related to these incidents. The District also publicly released information about various services which are available for any staff or students who need additional help. If anyone would like this information who did not receive it, they may contact the High School Counselor. As stated before, the District has also been reviewing this situation to ascertain everything that happened and if any changes need to be made in the policies, procedures and practices of the District. As the facts of this matter are uncovered by the investigation by the Perry Police Department, the criminal prosecutions by the District Attorney’s Office, and the District’s review of this situation, any additional actions which need to be taken to address this matter will be implemented by the District. The District strives to do what is in the best interest of our students and whatever we can to provide an environment which is conducive to learning, which is safe, and which protects our students. Because of the ongoing investigation and prosecutions, the District will not comment further at this time, but may comment in the future as new facts are discovered or it is determined to take additional actions."
Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister issued the following statement:
“This situation in Perry is a stark reminder to anyone who works in our schools that it is unconscionable to say nothing or look the other way when there is an allegation of an adult victimizing a child.“
“If you suspect any type of inappropriate behavior between adults and students, you absolutely have a legal and moral obligation to report it to the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. It is not your responsibility to determine the validity of a claim, regardless of where it originates. Swift and proper reporting of suspected inappropriate behavior is vital.“
“Parents surrender their children to our schools with the presumption they will be safe from harm. I am heartbroken for the students and families in Perry whose trust in their local school has been shaken.“