Acquitted teacher's return to Marion classroom elicits protests

Marion Independent officials have yet to explain the decision

Diane Graham (right) and her attorney Mark Brown listen to Assistant Linn County Attorney Andrew Powers during a pretria
Diane Graham (right) and her attorney Mark Brown listen to Assistant Linn County Attorney Andrew Powers during a pretrial hearing for Graham at the Linn County Courthouse in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017. Graham, a Marion teacher is charged with failing to report child sex abuse in her classroom. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

An online petition has started and a protest is scheduled as parents learned that a teacher placed on leave and sued over reports that pupils were sexually abused by a teen volunteer in her Starry Elementary kindergarten classroom started working Thursday at Vernon Middle.

Diane Graham was acquitted at trial in January of failing to report child sex abuse. Still, the district has paid out $2.7 million to settle four lawsuits related to the allegations, and two others are pending.

Some parents and former students are upset that the Marion Independent School District now will have her work with fifth- and sixth-graders.

Superintendent Chris Dyer hasn’t returned email requests sent over two days or a phone message left Thursday by The Gazette, asking about Graham’s position. School board President David Law also didn’t return a message Thursday seeking comment.

A petition started Thursday had 77 signatures as of 3 p.m. toward its goal of 100. The petition states Graham shouldn’t be in the classroom and asks Dyer to reconsider. Additionally, a protest is set for 3:40 p.m. Friday at Marion High School.

Mark Gaffey, 20, and Riane Novak, 18, who are hosting it, said on Facebook that as former students of Vernon Middle and Marion High schools, they think Graham got a “slap on the wrist as if she barely did anything wrong.”

Jeff De Young, a grandparent of two students at Vernon Middle and one at Starry Elementary, said he thinks Graham broke her “contractual obligation” to ensure student safety.

“The school district is ultimately responsible for their employees’ actions or lack of,” De Young noted. “I feel the problem starts with Mrs. Graham’s employment, the superintendent and the principals of Starry and high school. These are the people that are employed by citizens to ensure our children’s safety and education.”

De Young said he plans to be at the protest.

Jim Conklin, a grandparent of a fifth-grader at Vernon Middle, said he also doesn’t believe Graham should be in a classroom. He said he tried to call the superintendent with questions, but Dyer had not called back.

Several other Marion Independent parents and grandparents posted Thursday on Facebook, saying they were upset and confused over the district’s decision and expressed frustration at not being able to get through to school officials.

Logan McMurrin, who was 15 at the time, was a volunteer in Graham’s kindergarten classroom in 2016. He was convicted last year in juvenile court of three counts of second-degree sexual abuse and is at the Iowa State Training School for Boys in Eldora.

After McMurrin’s conviction, Graham, 59, was charged with failing to report child sex abuse in the classroom as a mandatory reporter, a simple misdemeanor.

At trial, two 6-year-old girls, who were 5 when the abuse happened, testified they told Graham that McMurrin was touching them.

But Graham, a teacher for 30 years, testified the girls hadn’t told her. After she received an email from one of the girl’s mothers, she told the Starry principal about it and the issue went up the “chain of command.”

A Tama County jury acquitted her in January.

The lawsuits, five against the district and Graham and one against the district and another teacher, Sara Sievers, were filed by Starry parents. Sievers is being sued because McMurrin had been a volunteer in her class in 2015.

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