For the second time in less than a year, Izard County residents have been rocked by allegations that a prominent member of the community has been sexually abusing children.
"I was most definitely surprised," said Melbourne School District Superintendent Gerald Cooper after felony sex abuse charges were filed June 11 against Melbourne High School assistant principal and agriculture teacher Steven Mitchell.
Mitchell, 29, of Pineville has been charged with two counts of sexual assault in the first degree, class B felonies; two counts of sexual assault in the second degree, class B felonies; solicitation to commit sexual assault in the second degree, a class C felony; sexual indecency with a child, a class D felony; five counts of indecent exposure, class A misdemeanors; and three counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, class B misdemeanors.
According to 16th Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Donald McSpadden, Mitchell is accused of coercing male students, ages 13 to 18, into exposing their genitals and committing sexual acts. The incidents are alleged to have occurred at Melbourne High School and on school sponsored Future Farmers of America (FFA) trips, from the spring of 2002 to the spring of 2004.
Izard County Sheriff Joe Martz said Mitchell surrendered to authorities without incident. Mitchell's bond was set at $100,000. He posted bond the same day.
"He ain't done nothing. Those boys down there are just trying to cause trouble," said Mitchell's grandfather, F.E. Mitchell, of Pineville.
Cooper said the accusations were brought to his attention and he forwarded his concerns to the Arkansas State Police.
Arkansas State Police investigator Becky Vacco and Crimes Against Children Division Investigator Jannette Cooper began interviewing students and others connected to the case June 2. After Vacco and Jannette Cooper completed their interviews, McSpadden issued charges against Mitchell.
According to the arrest affidavit, one of the alleged victims said Mitchell persuaded him to expose his genitals while Mitchell was exposing his genitals in the girls' bathroom at the Melbourne High School Agricultural building.
The accuser, 18, said he and Mitchell committed lewd acts with one another at Mitchell's urging. The victim said Mitchell tried to persuade him to engage in oral sex, but the student refused.
The alleged victim said Mitchell promised to "leave his younger brother alone" and "make things good for him" at the school if he kept quiet about the incident.
The student said he and Mitchell had similar encounters on FFA trips to Hot Springs and Louisville, Ky.
Another alleged victim said Mitchell asked him to expose himself on numerous occasions at the school and on school sponsored trips. The second accuser, 15, said he trusted Mitchell and exposed himself.
He said on one occasion Mitchell attempted to entice him into sexual acts. The student said when he resisted Mitchell grabbed his exposed genitals, but he pulled away.
The second accuser said on another occasion he and Mitchell committed a sexual act in the presence of, but not with, each other behind the welding booths in the agricultural building.
In the affidavit, students interviewed said on FFA trips, Mitchell would have "contests" to see which student had the largest genitalia. The students would stand in a circle and expose themselves at Mitchell's urging. Students said Mitchell exposed himself during several of the contests.
The allegations stunned people in the Melbourne School District. Superintendent Cooper said Mitchell had an excellent work record and was one of the most respected teachers in the Melbourne School District.
Mitchell and his wife, Sarah, have two children, a 4-year-old girl and 3-month-old boy.
Mitchell has been placed on administrative leave.
Repeated attempts to reach Mitchell for comment were unsuccessful.
Mitchell's grandfather said Mitchell hired an attorney from Mountain Home. If convicted, Mitchell faces up to 96 years in prison and $106,500 in fines. His first court date is slated for July 12 at the Izard County Courthouse.
Law enforcement officials said the investigation is continuing.
In May former Horseshoe Bend recorder/treasurer Chuck Simmons was convicted on five counts of rape. Prosecutors in the case detailed how Simmons sexually abused four teen-age boys at his Horseshoe Bend home from 1997 to 2000.
A Cleburne County jury sentenced Simmons to 210 years in prison. Simmons is appealing the decision.