PERRY, Okla. - An elementary school math teacher has pleaded not guilty to accusations he failed to report student complaints of molestation and sexual abuse.
Jeffrey Sullins, 51, said nothing as he appeared in Noble County court Thursday afternoon.
Parents of abuse victims looked on from the gallery.
Police said Sullins called his students liars after intercepting notes describing a teaching aide's inappropriate contact.
Arnold Cowen, 85, is the volunteer now facing felony charges, accused of molesting at least 20 girls.
Elementary school principal Kenda Miller, 51, is also charged of failing to report the abuse, which may have led to at least 10 additional students becoming victims.
The case has rattled the small, tight-knit community Pastor Josh Kerr calls home.
"It’s been a crisis in every way," said Kerr, who leads First Presbyterian Church. "Even those that haven’t been directly affected by what’s going on have been dealing with the anxiety and the hurt and the feeling of betrayal."
Kerr and Zion Lutheran Pastor Peter Olson have tried to make themselves more available, as outlets for anxiety and fear.
Each have students, parents and school faculty members in their congregations.
"I sense a lot of fear from some people, anger from others, a lot of sadness, disappointment," Olson said. "I’ve had more people coming to me lately asking questions about faith as well in the midst of it, questions about where God is in the midst of this. But, it can be helpful as people realize and recognize that God is walking in the midst of this, walking side-by-side with people as they struggle through this."
District Attorney Brian Hermanson will try the case himself, an assistant told the court Thursday.
Hermanson has asked Judge Nikki Leach to recuse himself from all three cases, citing bias and preferential treatment for Miller and Sullins.
Leach, who has already recused himself from the Cowen case, brushed aside the accusations in the courtroom.
His daughter-in-law is a teacher in Perry schools and recruited Cowen years ago but nothing about their relationship shows bias, he said.
Sullins is due back in court Apr. 27.
Miller will appear Mar. 24, and Cowen's next court date is May 8.
The pastors are calling on their congregations to be patient as the court battle begins.
"The fact is we don’t have all the facts," Kerr said.
Olson agreed and urged people not to dehumanize others in an emotional case.
"There are no winners in this," he said. "There’s just the hope of some grace and peace somewhere down the road."