Proctor teacher sent to prison for sexually assaulting student
“I don’t know if you can grasp the pain and damage and harm you have caused," a judge told Todd Clark, denying his bid for probation.
DULUTH — Groomed by a Proctor middle school teacher to engage in a yearlong series of sexual assaults, a former student said she found herself "trapped in a gruesome cycle I didn’t even understand."
But after years of manipulation and threats to coerce her into silence, the victim of Todd Robert Clark finally had her words heard in a Duluth courtroom Monday.
“What happened here has emotionally broken me in every way imaginable," the young woman wrote in letter that was read aloud by a representative. “He learned about my vulnerabilities and used them to manipulate me, inserting himself into my life as a father figure he knew I wanted.”
Clark, a longtime local teacher and high school basketball coach, said he accepted responsibility for his actions. But he drew no leniency from Judge Theresa Neo, who called the case "a parent's worst nightmare" and imposed a guideline, four-year prison term.
Clark, 52, appeared prepared for the moment, having exchanged hugs and giving his belongings to family members moments earlier. He was placed in handcuffs and led from the courtroom by deputies to immediately begin serving the sentence.
“He has torn apart a community to satisfy his own sickness," the victim's mother told the court.
Clark, a teacher at A.I. Jedlicka Middle School until his arrest last August, pleaded guilty in April to a felony count of third-degree criminal sexual conduct.
He admitted to developing a relationship and engaging in sexual conduct with the girl starting when she was 15 years old. He acknowledged using his hand to inappropriately touch her on more than one instance inside a car, under circumstances that could be defined as coercion.
Because of the girl's age, and the fact that Clark was in a position of authority, the victim had no ability to grant consent and the acts constitute sexual assault.
The victim and her mother on Monday described how Clark exploited a troubled family situation that was brought to the attention of school officials. A former student in Clark's eighth grade algebra class, the girl said they started meeting outside the school setting — at first just at a restaurant or for a car ride, with Clark later "testing the waters" with kissing and inappropriate touching.
The victim said it "didn't feel right," but she felt a compulsion to keep Clark in her life. He demanded secrecy, she said, and threatened suicide if she came forward.
“It was beaten into me that if anyone found out about the abuse, I would be responsible for the imprisonment or his death," the girl told the court.
The victim's mother told the judge that "the impact on my family cannot be measured," citing a barrage of comments and gossip they have faced in the school community since her daughter came forward to another teacher last summer.
“(She) still has bouts of extreme emotional distress, and that’s something she’ll have to work on for the rest of her life," the mother told the court.
Defense attorneys David Keegan and Mikkel Long asked the judge to depart from state sentencing guidelines and place Clark on supervised probation. They argued he "has accepted rehabilitative efforts and has expressed a willingness to continue with those efforts and probationary supervision," suggesting he undergo sex offender treatment at the Northeast Regional Corrections Center.
But St. Louis County prosecutor Jon Holets criticized Clark for allegedly attempting to shift blame to the victim during an interview for his presentence investigation. He argued for a sentence within the guideline range of 41-57 months.
“He started this," Holets said. "He brought the victim to him. He made this happen. He covered it up. He exploited a vulnerable student and attempted to keep her silent.”
Clark himself gave a lengthy statement in which he denied manipulating the situation, but nonetheless said: "I’m just so sorry it happened the way it did.”
“I still have the same feelings for you that I had for you before," he told the victim. "I want you to be happy and healthy. I want you to have success in anything you do. I have no ill will toward you. You have nothing to fear from me. I wish you only the best. I want to support you on your journey, but because of my weakness, my stupidity, my selfishness, I can’t do that.”
Neo took a roughly 20-minute recess before returning to issue her decision, telling Clark that "your apology didn’t sound like an apology.”
“I don’t know if you can grasp the pain and damage and harm you have caused to (the victim) and her family and the community and anyone who fears their child might be a victim of sexual abuse," the judge said.
Clark, who has credit for 37 days previously served, must spend at least two-thirds of the sentence — 32 months — in custody before he is eligible for supervised release, which will extend for 10 years. He must also register as a predatory offender.
A plea agreement resulted in the dismissal of additional counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and first-degree witness tampering.
Clark, a 1988 Proctor High School graduate, previously served as a middle school math teacher at Marshall School in Duluth and spent 20 years coaching high school varsity boys basketball at Proctor and Marshall.
This story was updated at 5:12 p.m. June 20 with additional information from Monday's hearing. It was originally posted at 1:04 p.m. June 20.