It was the word of adults against that of five students in court on Wednesday.
Five teenage girls have accused Paul Mather, a middle school geography teacher, of molesting them. But on Wednesday, two teachers and a school secretary took the stand to describe what a caring and good-hearted man Mather is.
“Students were always soliciting hugs from him,” said Marsha Kramer, a teacher and coach at Canfield Middle School where Mather taught.
Mather, 49, is accused of two counts of sexual abuse in connection with his behavior toward two of the girls, ages 13 and 14. Prosecutors are pursuing charges in the two cases they felt involved the most inappropriate behavior.
Mather’s trial began earlier this week.
The case has divided students and teachers at the Coeur d’Alene school and leaves it to jurors to decide when hugging crosses the line into abuse.
On Tuesday, the five girls, some of whom were Mather’s class aides and students, testified the teacher would hug them tightly at school.
Sometimes, he would press his groin against them, massage their buttocks or touch their breasts, they said. Other times, he would sit with one of his legs between theirs, rubbing their thighs and coming within inches of touching their genitals, they said.
But on Wednesday, school officials and another student said Mather was merely a touchy-feely person whose hugs were well-intentioned.
Jennifer Loar, an eighth-grader at Canfield last year and one of Mather’s aides, said she looked forward to the teacher’s hugs.
“If I was having a bad day, I knew he would be there for me,” she said. When questioned by Deputy Prosecutor Lansing Haynes, the girl said Mather never had rested his hands on her breasts or buttocks.
Kramer said Mather often gave her tight bear hugs.
“Were his arms and hands close to your breasts?” defense attorney Tim Gresback asked.
“I’m sure they were,” Kramer responded.
“Did his hands ever touch your breasts?”
“Yes.” But Kramer said she never felt his touches were sexual in nature and instead were just innocent by-products of kindly hugs.
Kramer said she, too, has touched students’ breasts and buttocks as part of hugging but never in a sexual way.
“I hug my students as a form of showing them I do care, I hug them to give them that sense of security” Kramer said, explaining Mather’s behavior was no different than hers. “Paul and I are both jocks, so we’re physically aggressive people.”
She said she would even straddle her own students’ legs while working with them. When questioned by the prosecutor, she said she might even rub or pat their leg as a calming device.
On Tuesday, the girls said they were afraid to come forward at first, in part, because Mather was popular and they feared other students and teachers would be upset. They also did not want to get a teacher they had admired in trouble.
The girls testified that they had liked and confided in Mather. Earlier in the year, he had hugged them and not made them uncomfortable. But last spring, his hugs changed, they said, particularly when others weren’t looking.
On Wednesday, school officials said the five girls making the accusations are good students. As teacher’s aides, they were among the most trustworthy and honest.
Vice Principal Dennis Webster said the girls were upset, embarrassed and sometimes crying when they told him about the touching.
Principal Jim Lien testified that when he and Webster told Mather about the accusations, Mather did not deny them or ask who had made them.
Teacher Cindy Jonz testified that she, too, hugged students. “I assume you don’t caress the breasts and buttocks,” deputy prosecutor Joel Hazel asked her. She said no.
But Gresback pointed out that the school does not have a policy telling teachers what type of touching is inappropriate.
Kramer, a health and physical education teacher, said Mather’s hugs may have made the girls feel uncomfortable but she does not believe the teacher sexually abused them. Instead, she said puberty can be a confusing time for girls that age.
“They’re questioning their own sexuality; they’re going through feelings they’ve never experienced before … changes in their bodies,” Kramer said. “One minute they’re fine, the next minute they’re not.”
Mather has been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the trial. The trial is expected to last through the end of the week.