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Crime & Courts

Wasilla police investigated ‘pedophile’ teacher in 2012. The school didn’t know that.

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: September 29
  • Published September 28

Lukis Nighswonger appears in court via video for his arraignment on charges of sexual abuse of a minor Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018 in Palmer. Nighswonger was a teacher at Iditarod Elementary School and is accused of abusing students there. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

PALMER — Six years ago, a 9-year-old boy told Wasilla police an Iditarod Elementary School teacher touched his genitals, but the school apparently didn't find out until this week.

That teacher — Lukis Nighswonger, 36 and a self-described pedophile, according to police — was arrested Wednesday on felony criminal charges he inappropriately touched several children, including the boy, over the last decade.

Nighswonger wasn't arrested in 2012 after the boy told investigators the teacher not only touched his penis but also put his hand up a girl's shirt and into another boy's pants.

Police said Thursday there wasn't enough evidence.

A criminal case wasn't filed until this week, when Nighswonger admitted he put his hand down a fourth-grade girl's pants in 2014. A 14-year-old girl also told authorities earlier this year that he touched her genitals.

Nighswonger's arrest Wednesday stunned the Iditarod community now trying to come to grips with the prospect of a beloved educator turned predator.

As many as 100 parents met with Iditarod and district officials Thursday, and the district maintained a presence in the school Friday. A Wasilla police school resource officer on Thursday fielded questions from families — including some about the 2012 report.

The district has no record that police contacted administrators after the boy came forward, officials say.

That's due to the Wasilla Police Department's policy of not informing employers about allegations of a crime unless charges are filed, a police spokeswoman said.

"There's so many things we investigate that don't turn into anything. We'd start … crossing the line into defamation, slander if we brought everything forward," Amanda Graham said Friday. "But the investigation was completed and no charges were pressed, so that's where it stopped."

Iditarod Elementary School. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

A school district official said there's no record at this time of any contact.

"We're looking into what communication, if any, was delivered between the Wasilla Police Department and the school district," spokeswoman Jillian Morrissey said Friday.

The district does have an internal investigation policy if a school receives a report of possible abuse, Morrissey said. If criminal activity is discovered, police are contacted — as they were last week when a report of possible abuse surfaced, triggering the investigation into Nighswonger.

The Anchorage Police Department informs schools if they are looking into criminal activity there, spokesman MJ Thim said.

"If there's anything we're investigating that involves the school district, we let them know," Thim said.

The Palmer Police Department doesn't have a specific policy regarding schools if criminal allegations are made, Chief Lance Ketterling said Friday.

"Each one of these is unique," Ketterling said. "We have to base them on the individual circumstances."

Asked if the Nighswonger case would prompt a review of the Wasilla police policy on criminal allegations, at least for schools, Graham said she didn't know.

Any such review would come from inside the police department, and Chief Gene Belden is out of town until Monday, Wasilla Mayor Bert Cottle said Friday.

Cottle said he didn't want to second-guess his police department and had no comment about the policy.

Two of the district's eight school board members said they thought schools should be notified but acknowledged the complexity of the situation.

Kelsey Trimmer, a school board member from near Palmer who owns a septic company, paused during a job Friday to consider the question of why Iditarod wasn't contacted, one he'd wondered about.

"I really feel like it should be reported to the school personnel. And then they can determine," Trimmer said. "But at the same time, without any proof, people have to have rights too."

Even if police don't have enough evidence to press charges, the school may still want to consider supervising the teacher more closely, said board member Sarah Welton, a counselor and pastor from Palmer.

"The safety of children should be first but you do have to be very careful that you do not harm someone else in that process," she said. "I do believe the school does have that right to know."

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