A Canfield Middle School teacher has been charged with sexually abusing children after five female students claimed he had molested them at school.
The girls are ages 13 and 14. They say Paul T. Mather touched their buttocks and breasts while hugging and massaging them, according to a Kootenai County sheriff’s report.
One girl told investigators she began wearing a backpack in a futile attempt to fend off Mather’s hugs.
Mather, 49, denied the allegations through an attorney on Tuesday.
Mather is affectionate and his actions have been misinterpreted, said lawyer John Rumel of the Idaho Education Association.
“He hugs his players, he hugs his students. He doesn’t hug them if they tell him they don’t want that,” said Rumel. “We don’t think there’s any validity to the charges.”
Citing the confidentiality of personnel matters, district officials would not comment on the case.
They would say only that they have completed an investigation of an unnamed Canfield teacher who has been suspended with pay since June 10.
“The district is cooperating fully with law enforcement officials,” said Dave Teater, assistant superintendent.
Mather, a social studies teacher, has taught at Canfield since 1988.
He is head baseball coach for Coeur d’Alene High School, where he also has coached football. He has coached boys basketball at the middle school and is head coach for the city’s American Legion baseball team.
The school district suspended Mather after a student changed her mind about being a teacher’s aide to Mather. The girl told another teacher that she was uncomfortable with Mather’s touching.
James Lien, Canfield principal, told investigators he learned of the alleged sexual contact after looking into her concerns and talking to several students, according to the sheriff’s report.
Three of the girls were aides for Mather; the other two were students. They told sheriff’s detectives that Mather often came up behind them and hugged them, moving his hands to their breasts.
Other times, he would hug them from the front, squeezing and placing his hands on their buttocks, according to the sheriff’s report.
Several girls said Mather often would rub their shoulders, moving his hands to their breasts or down to their lower waist.
One 13-year-old said the teacher would push his leg in between hers when they were sitting together talking. She said he then would rub her leg as he spoke to her, according to the sheriff’s report.
Another 13-year-old student told investigators that Mather had her stay after class and then would hug her so tightly she could not break loose. He also would run his hands back and forth on her breast, she said.
“She said that during these contacts, he tells her what a great girl she is,” sheriff’s detective Ken Sopher said in his report.
Another girl told the detective that Mather would tell her that he loved her while fondling her. One time, she tried to get out of his hug, but the teacher grabbed her by the arms and would not let go, she said.
Sheriff’s investigators believe the inappropriate touching incidents have been occurring since January.
The Kootenai County prosecutor’s office charged Mather on Friday with two counts of sexual abuse of a child under age 16. If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison.
“I am very angry that this happened to my daughter,” said the mother of one of the girls. “She views men in a different light now. Now she’s on the guard instead of being an innocent kid like she’s supposed to be.”
Mather spent Tuesday evening coaching an American Legion baseball game.
The league’s board of directors met Tuesday and asked Mather to step down as coach, said Glen Walker, a former county prosecutor whose son plays on the team.
But Mather refused, outraging many parents.
“It’s just an incredibly selfish action,” Walker said, pointing to a sheet of conduct rules that Mather hands out to each of his players.
“Never do anything to embarrass this program,” the handout reads, citing “trouble with the law” as an example of behavior that will result in automatic dismissal.
“These kids don’t need to be in the middle of this,” said Larry Rook, whose son also plays on Mather’s team.
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MEMO: See related story under the headline: Police reports say district knew teacher had sex with girl in 1989