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Omaha teacher charged with sexual assault of a child had history of questionable interactions with students

December 17, 2018

Gregory Sedlacek was hugging kindergartners too much.

A paraprofessional in a South Dakota classroom, Sedlacek was picking up the students and tickling them.

The Red Cloud Indian School on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has a policy addressing contact with young children. Sedlacek was reminded of that but continued to hug the kids. That led to his suspension.

School officials got the general sense that “something is wrong here,” said Moira Coomes, superintendent of schools.

“It was a feeling,” she said. “And the principal was adamant. She wanted him out.”

After less than a year at the school, Coomes said, Sedlacek was dismissed.

Six years after he was fired in South Dakota, teachers at Omaha’s Fontenelle Elementary School contacted the Nebraska child abuse hotline after spotting “inappropriate contact” on the playground between Sedlacek and a first-grade girl.

The 30-year-old first-grade teacher has now been charged with two counts of first-degree sexual assault of a child. Omaha police are investigating allegations that Sedlacek sexually assaulted four other first-grade girls.

Sedlacek is being held without bail. He gave detectives a list of several girls he had touched inappropriately, a prosecutor has said. He also told police that he was sexually attracted to young girls.

Sedlacek allegedly digitally penetrated a 7-year-old girl on the playground about 11 a.m. Nov. 19, according to a police report. He was taken out of the classroom and placed on leave Nov. 20, the same day a report was made to the Nebraska child abuse hotline and to the district administration, said Omaha Public Schools spokeswoman Monique Farmer.

Last week, Fontenelle Principal Eric Nelson was placed on leave while officials investigate what happened at the school.

Parents and teachers at Fontenelle say they are frustrated that OPS officials have provided little information about the case. District officials say they are limited in what information they can share.

Chief Deputy Douglas County Attorney Brenda Beadle said Friday that officials still are investigating the additional allegations against Sedlacek.

A Fontenelle teacher said Sedlacek was a respected teacher who had good classroom management skills and helped his students learn new words. His lesson plans always were complete, and he worked long days at the school, said the teacher, who spoke on the condition of not being named.

Sedlacek had a theme for his classroom every year and often “dressed in character,” the teacher said, wearing a lei, grass skirt and sunglasses or pirate clothing. The students loved it, the teacher said, while some adults thought it odd — but not alarming.

After Sedlacek was arrested, the teacher said, people at Fontenelle racked their brains to think of any early warning signs.

“Everyone goes back and says, ‘What did we miss?’ ” the teacher said. “For these families, you’re just heartbroken. We’re just devastated. The teachers have done an amazing job coping and making school go on.”

Omaha police have told officials at the South Dakota school that none of the students on Sedlacek’s list is from there, Coomes said.

OPS was aware of Sedlacek’s employment with Red Cloud but did not know he was terminated or the reasons why, Farmer said.

Prospective OPS teachers undergo a comprehensive background check, including a check of the National Sex Offender Registry and reference checks, she said.

[Madonna School says Sedlacek worked there and ‘may have acted inappropriately’]

Sedlacek worked at Madonna School, which serves children and adults with cognitive and developmental disabilities, from May 2010 to June 2011. He graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha about the time he started at Madonna.

Sedlacek was hired as a paraprofessional in South Dakota in August 2011. As part of a volunteer program, he lived in the community and received a stipend.

Coomes said workers at the school noticed Sedlacek’s questionable interactions with students and reported them to school officials.

During Sedlacek’s suspension from Red Cloud, other people came forward with concerns about him, Coomes said. No one had alleged sexual misconduct, she said, but Sedlacek was dismissed in March 2012, less than a year after he was hired. Coomes wasn’t superintendent at the time.

In 2014, a Red Cloud school district official contacted the Archdiocese of Omaha “in confidence” after learning that Sedlacek had entered the Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis in 2013, according to Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor and spokesman for the archdiocese.

In a letter, the official said Sedlacek’s contract with the school district wasn’t renewed because he had violated a policy on maintaining appropriate boundaries with children, McNeil said. Sedlacek was dismissed from the seminary following a hearing in 2014 after the letter was received, McNeil said.

McNeil said the archdiocese didn’t later inform OPS of Sedlacek’s dismissal from the seminary because archdiocesan officials didn’t know that he had applied to work for OPS.

In 2014, Sedlacek was hired as a paraprofessional at Fontenelle Elementary. After leaving the school to get a master’s degree from UNL, he returned in 2016 as a first-grade teacher after receiving his Nebraska teacher certificate in July of that year.

Sedlacek’s file with the state’s certification database shows no disciplinary action against him since he became certified.

The Fontenelle teacher said staff members are upset that Nelson, the principal, has been placed on leave. Teachers gathered at the school for a meeting on Tuesday but were given no additional information.

“We really need (Nelson) at this time,” the teacher said. “I’ve worked for six principals, and if he leaves, I might leave teaching. We just don’t even want to be there if he isn’t.”

The teacher said Fontenelle staff had gone through training to be a “trauma-sensitive” school thanks to Nelson, who helped oversee starting various school clubs and secured grants to help the school. He started working at Fontenelle as a teacher in 1997 and served the past eight years as principal.

Sharina Reed, whose youngest two children attend Fontenelle, said she and her kids love Nelson.

“He’s never been the type that would put a parent down, put the kids down. He works out problems,” Reed said. “We want him back at the school. We don’t want a new principal.”

She hopes for more of an explanation from OPS and wants officials to hold a meeting for parents.

OPS said officials couldn’t give more information because of the ongoing investigation.

“We have shared as much as we can share at this time,” Farmer said.

The World-Herald attempted to reach the parents of five children listed in police reports alleging sexual contact by Sedlacek. They either declined to comment or were unable to be reached.

Sedlacek’s father, who was contacted Friday, declined to comment.

Coomes, the Red Cloud superintendent, said hearts are breaking there for any student who was abused.

“It’s a constant fight in education to make sure we have the right people in charge of our precious children,” she said.

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