A former teacher who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 15-year-old student at a now-shuttered Baptist school in Colorado Springs will serve 90 days in jail and up to the rest of her life on intensive probation.
Terah Rawlings, 33, clutched a box of tissues and wept as 4th Judicial District Judge Timothy J. Schutz told her that despite the victim’s wishes to the contrary, she deserved to serve time for the sexual abuse.
“It is shameful that we can’t have our children go off to church or school without fearing they’re going to be assaulted by the people to whom they are entrusted,” Schutz told a courtroom packed with members of Hilltop Baptist Church, which operated the Hilltop Baptist School until its closure in 2010.
Rawlings, who offered a tearful apology in court, was sentenced to 10 years to life on sex offender intensive supervised parole. She was ordered to report to the El Paso County jail on May 5 to serve her 90-day term.
The case led to charges against three other school administrators — including Rawlings’ father and uncle — and spawned a lawsuit by a married couple who say they were fired in retaliation for reporting rumors of the assault.
Laurie Sutton, who taught math, and Dustin Sutton, a volunteer basketball coach, settled their lawsuit in January 2012 for an undisclosed sum.
“As a father, I could never fathom something like this happening to my children,” Dustin Sutton told the court Thursday. “I think it will be a long time before I can walk into a church and 100 percent trust people.”
Rawlings abuse of a then-sophomore boy occurred during the 2007-2008 school year but didn’t result in charges until 2011, when prosecutors convened a grand jury because the victim was reluctant to cooperate.
According to prosecutor Amy Fitch, Rawlings lured the boy into a relationship with sexually themed text messages and pictures.
Their relationship was an open secret among some students, who later reported they once spotted the pair kissing in a church van during a school trip to Greeley.
Rawlings once went so far as to confide in a teenage girl that she was heartbroken when the boy broke off the relationship, said Fitch, who angrily detailed how children in their confusion over the relationship were left to keep Rawlings’ secret.
Rawlings is the daughter of Raymond “Allen” Knight, who served as the school’s athletic director, and the niece of Franklin “Wayne” Knight, the senior pastor at Hilltop Baptist and formerly the school’s chief executive.
Both men are serving probation after taking plea deals in the case. Franklin Knight pleaded guilty to charges he failed to relay reports of sexual abuse to authorities, a legal requirement for educators. Wayne Knight, accused of orchestrating a cover-up to protect his niece, pleaded guilty to being an accessory to sex abuse. The school’s former principal, Jan Ocvirk, was likewise charged with a misdemeanor for failing to report the abuse and sentenced to probation under a plea agreement.
According to the indictment, administrators became aware of the abuse during the 2008-2009 school year, when teacher Tiffaney Anderson relayed concerns to Ocvirk, who briefed the pastor, the documents allege. Two parishioners revived the allegations a year later, in 2010, and the Suttons stepped forward the same year.
Each time, prosecutors allege, Wayne Knight either ignored their concerns or discouraged them from coming forward.
The victim, now an adult, wasn’t present in court but requested that Rawlings be given a probation and that she be allowed to remain at home with her husband and four sons, ranging in age from 13 to 3.
Schutz said probation wouldn’t be sufficient, partly because of allegations that Rawlings stood firm in her denials while colleagues were fired for reporting the abuse.
Rawlings’ sentencing occurred on her 15th wedding anniversary, she told the court through sobs.
“This was the biggest mistake and regret of my life, and it drives a knife through my heart every time I think about it,” she said.
Contact Lance Benzel: 636-0366 Twitter @lancebenzel
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