Education

'Intense public scrutiny' after news of Mid-Prairie school volunteer's past conviction for exploitation of a minor

(FILE PHOTO) Students use a spiral staircase to get to and from the north and south ends of the school at Mid-Prairie High School on Tuesday, March 4, 2014, in Wellman, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek)
(FILE PHOTO) Students use a spiral staircase to get to and from the north and south ends of the school at Mid-Prairie High School on Tuesday, March 4, 2014, in Wellman, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek)

Administrators in a rural Eastern Iowa school district have known for years that one of their classroom volunteers is a convicted sex offender, though the volunteer’s felony record did not prevent him from interacting with students.

The volunteer, Trent Yoder, 47, pleaded guilty in 1998 to exploitation of a minor for filming a student in an Anita elementary school bathroom, according to reporting from the Des Moines Register.

Yoder now has two sons enrolled in Mid-Prairie Community School District schools, where he has volunteered since 2015.

The district is made up of Wellman, Kalona, and West Chester communities in Washington County.

In a statement sent to staff and parents Friday, Mid-Prairie Superintendent Mark Schneider said his decision to allow Yoder in schools despite his past conviction “was not taken lightly.”

The district has faced “intense public scrutiny,” he said, since the Register reported the story late Thursday about Yoder’s continuing interactions with students.

The school district had not, until Friday, notified parents of Yoder’s history. Members of the district’s parent organization declined to comment or did not respond to Gazette requests Friday.

Some of Yoder’s former students told the Register they believe he should not be allowed to work with children.

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“They’re putting other children in jeopardy,” Katie Pollock told the Register. “It gives me a certain level of discomfort knowing that he’s back in the school system and knowing that people are OK with it.”

In his letter to parents and staff, Schneider attempted to outline “the facts behind this decision” regarding Yoder.

“The central question for each of us to answer in our own hearts is, ‘Can a person learn and change from his/her mistakes?’” Schneider wrote. “My own children attended Mid-Prairie and my grandchildren are currently students here. I would never knowingly put my grandchildren or anyone else’s children or grandchildren in harm’s way.”

In light of recent reports, parents have questioned school safety in the district, the superintendent wrote.

The Mid-Prairie school board will hold a special meeting at 8 a.m. Saturday, when board members will discuss policies related to volunteers, consider appointing a committee to review policies and discuss Yoder’s status as a volunteer.

In his Friday statement, Schneider went on to say he first learned Yoder was volunteering, with the principal’s permission, in one of the district’s elementary schools in fall 2014. Schneider said he required Yoder to undergo a background check.

After receiving the background check results — which revealed Yoder’s 1998 conviction and his listing on the sex offender registry until 2008 — Schneider denied Yoder’s request to volunteer in classrooms.

Yoder then asked the superintendent to reconsider.

“He was candid and open about his conviction and expressed remorse,” the superintendent said. “He asked if I would reconsider my decision so he could be involved in his sons’ education.”

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Schneider went on to learn “everything about (Yoder’s) conviction,” he wrote. Yoder was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but later had his sentence reduced to six weeks.

He was on probation for four years and had to register as a sex offender for a decade.

The superintendent also received several letters from community members in support of Yoder, including a church pastor, a retired Mid-Prairie elementary teacher, a University of Iowa professor and an Iowa District Court judge, who commented on Yoder’s “spotless” record over the last 17 years.

In spring 2015, Schneider approved Yoder’s application to volunteer on the condition he “perform any volunteer activities in the presence of another adult.”

In addition to volunteering in classrooms, Yoder has built sets for the last four high school plays. But he no longer is allowed to volunteer in that capacity “because of the current concern and confusion,” Schneider said.

Yoder also has been involved with the Mid-Prairie Spelling Club, which Schneider said is not sponsored by the district. Nevertheless, the district is no longer allowing the club to use “Mid-Prairie” in its name and it can longer use school facilities.

Yoder’s “current school involvement has been restricted to activities involving only his sons,” Schneider said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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