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Duluth teacher accused of sex crimes back in court

Tuesday started with a court appearance for the Lincoln Park Middle School teacher accused of sexually assaulting a former student.

It ended with her being disciplined by the Duluth School Board, though the nature of that discipline was not immediately released.

Karla Jean Winterfeld, 33, is facing a felony count of first-degree criminal sexual conduct after investigators said she admitted last month to committing multiple sex acts with a 15-year-old victim.

The School Board unanimously approved a letter of discipline Tuesday after a closed session discussion "taking the first steps necessary to discipline" Winterfeld. According to a statement from district officials emailed to the News Tribune on Tuesday afternoon, Winterfeld will be placed on unpaid administrative leave "pending final disciplinary outcomes up to and including termination."

The final disciplinary outcome and letter are not currently public information due to privacy laws. Winterfeld has 10 days after receiving the letter to take action against the proposed discipline.

Winterfeld, who has held both health and special education teaching positions in the Duluth school district since 2007, had been placed on paid administrative leave after her May 21 arrest, which district officials called "shocking and disappointing."

Winterfeld started teaching in Duluth at Morgan Park Middle School in 2007 and moved to Lincoln Park in 2012, according to the district. Most recently, she split her time between Lincoln Park and the Area Learning Center and Academic Excellence Online, where she taught health.

Winterfeld, who remains in the St. Louis County Jail on $100,000 bail, appeared in State District Court in Duluth on Tuesday for the first time since her arraignment. Shackled and wearing an orange jumpsuit, she explained to Judge David Johnson that she had not yet retained an attorney.

A criminal complaint alleges that Winterfeld confessed to multiple sex acts with the teen between May 4 and May 19. Investigators said they also recovered video recordings, photographs, text messages and other evidence supporting the allegations.

Johnson last month denied the services of a public defender for Winterfeld, who had an annual salary of $72,926 before her arrest. The defendant said Tuesday morning that she had meetings scheduled with potential attorneys later in the day.

Winterfeld had never been the subject of any work complaints and had been the recipient of numerous awards during her tenure.

But that's not uncommon, said Caroline Palmer, public and legal affairs manager for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Most cases of sexual assault, she said, involve a perpetrator known to the victim — particularly when there is a position of authority.

"Someone who is capable of this, it can be anyone," Palmer said. "Someone who is in a position like this and has a lot of honors and respect in the community is just as susceptible as anyone else. ... It's important that we recognize that this happens all over the place — in government, law, medicine, police. It happens in so many places."

Palmer, however, stressed that such incidents are uncommon and not a reflection of teachers in general.

"Like in any profession, this is not happening a lot with school teachers, but we do hear these stories from time to time," Palmer said. "We all expect that teachers are there to support and mentor — not to create a situation where they're grooming for some sort of sexual interaction."

At her hearing, Winterfeld also asked the judge to reduce her bail, saying she would be able to post a $50,000 bond. She said she has been in protective custody, which she likened to solitary confinement, making it difficult to hire an attorney or conduct other business.

St. Louis County prosecutor Kristen Swanson opposed the request, noting that Winterfeld is already in the screening process for intensive pretrial release and saying the circumstances of her case have not changed since bail was set at her arraignment.

In denying the motion, Johnson told Winterfeld that she is facing a "very strong possibility of a prison sentence." Minnesota sentencing guidelines call for a presumptive 12-year sentence for a defendant with no criminal history who is convicted of first-degree criminal sexual conduct.

"I don't think bail was set at an unreasonable amount," Johnson told her.

Winterfeld's next court appearance was set for July 3.