Crime & Courts

Retired Anchorage teacher pleads not guilty to sexual abuse charges

A retired Anchorage School District teacher who was once named Alaska Teacher of the Year was arrested Wednesday on charges that he sexually abused of one of his former students.

David Schwantes, 73, was charged Wednesday with seven counts of sexual abuse of a minor, according to Anchorage Police Department spokesperson Jennifer Castro. On Thursday afternoon, Schwantes' attorney Danée Pontious entered a not guilty plea during a hearing at the Anchorage Correctional Complex.

Police began investigating allegations against Schwante in September after one of his former students, who is now an adult, reported to police that Schwantes sexually abused him. The victim told police that he met Schwantes at Mount Spurr Elementary School during the 1988-89 school year. Schwantes befriended the victim and molested him during the 1990s at school and elsewhere, the victim told police.

At a press conference Thursday afternoon, APD detective John Vandervalk said the victim chose to approach police now because the victim was struggling with how to provide child care for his children and trust they would be safe. "Many times in life ... there are triggering events that bring these things forward," Vandervalk said.

Vandervalk said there were "likely" other victims. Additional victims may choose not to come forward, Vandervalk said, as the pain of rehashing past events may be too great. If additional victims choose to come forward, the police department has resources to help them cope with the trauma, Vandervalk said.

When asked whether there were any red flags on Schwantes' record, Vandervalk said "there's no indications that I've been able to find ... that would have caused anybody to have any concerns back in the day."

Schwantes was named the 1989 Anchorage Teacher of the Year and was the Alaska Teacher of the Year in 1990, according to a 2013 profile in the National Education Association-Alaska retired members' newsletter.

Schwantes moved to Alaska after graduating from high school in Wisconsin, the newsletter reported. His first teaching assignment was in Sitka, teaching junior high math. He taught in Bethel and Adak before moving to Anchorage and teaching at Mount Spurr for 25 years.

According to police, Schwantes worked as a third- and fourth-grade teacher at Mount Spurr on Elmendorf Air Force Base (now Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson) from 1968 to 1993. Between 1993 and 1996, he worked as a substitute teacher in the Anchorage School District. From 1999 to 2000, he worked in Title 1 after-school activities at Muldoon Elementary School, Castro wrote.

"At this time it is not known for how many years this abusive behavior went on, therefore Schwantes' entire years of tenure must be examined," Castro wrote.

JBER spokesperson Maj. Angela Webb said at the press conference Thursday that the base is working to find students who were attending Mount Spurr when Schwantes taught there.

Schwantes was a civilian teacher with no ties to the military besides teaching on base, according to police.

During the press conference Thursday, police confirmed that the teacher and the Anchorage School District are both named in a lawsuit brought by the unnamed victim.

The complaint filed by plantiff "John Doe" in late July alleges that the school district "knew, or reasonably should have known of Schwantes's proclivity to sexually assault children," through a background check, screening, and duty to supervise Schwantes.

The complaint alleges that Schwantes sexually abused the victim for a decade, from 1988 to 1998. The plaintiff is suing for damages in excess of $100,000.

When asked about the level of scrutiny ASD employees face when hired, Superintendent Ed Graff told reporters that all employees are given fingerprint background checks. Employees are mandated reporters, required to report abuse or suspected abuse, and are given annual trainings on reporting.

"In the last several years we've adopted a curriculum that is related to personal safety," Graff said. Teachers give a presentation annually to students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

"We have conversations with students all the time with reporting things that are of concern," Graff said.

Graff didn't know what the school district's background check practice was in 1968.

Schwantes had no prior criminal history, APD Chief Mark Mew said, that would have raised suspicions.

Anyone with information about possible abuse by Schwantes is asked to call APD at (907) 786-8500 and ask for Detective John Vandervalk of the Special Victims Unit.