A McHenry County judge Monday agreed with defense attorneys in finding a Richmond-Burton High School teacher and cross-country coach was not guilty of a crime when he touched a student’s shirt as he commented on her “groutfit.”
Ryan Carlson, 47, of Hebron, who worked as a biology teacher at the high school from 2005 until his resignation, was charged in October with criminal misdemeanor counts of battery and disorderly conduct. A second battery case remains pending with a trial date set for October.
“Teachers were encouraged to check in on students and their progression back into the school setting.”— Ryan Carlson
A bench trial before McHenry County Judge Mark Gerhardt, held Monday afternoon, included a video of the roughly 30-second incident, which occurred about 7:30 a.m. Jan. 14, 2022.
Teachers and students could be seen walking by, but Gerhardt said, “No one appeared to be alarmed or disturbed.”
In making his ruling, Gerhardt said he also took into account witness testimony and the girl’s statements during the investigation where she gave varying details.
The girl, now 17, took the stand as the state’s first witness and said she was a 16-year-old sophomore at the time of the incident, which took place on a Friday, the last day of Spirit Week.
She said she was putting her backpack in her locker when Carlson, who had previously been her teacher and coach, approached her and asked her about her “groutfit,” slang for an all gray outfit.
She testified that he pulled the sides of the flannel shirt she was wearing over a sweatshirt behind her to see her outfit.
As he did that, she said, he “brushed” the sides of her body.
Another student, who testified for the defense Monday, then walked up, and Carlson and that student also had a conversation about her outfit, the other student said.
That student contradicted the girl’s account of what happened.
She said she saw Carlson pull the lapels open on the girl’s shirt to show the grey sweatshirt she was wearing. She did not see him pull the shirt down to her waist or wrap it behind her back or put his arms around her waist, she testified.
Carlson’s accuser said the incident made her feel “gross” and later that night at her job, she was “distracted” and had a panic attack because of it.
She said she did not give him permission to do what he did and she didn’t expect it.
“I just didn’t feel it was right to have a teacher touch me like that,” she said.
But later Monday, Carlson’s attorneys, Patrick Walsh and Daniel Hofmann, impeached the girl’s testimony, noting the changing details of her story.
Carlson also testified in his defense and said he had training on appropriate behavior with students, which is required annually.
When Assistant State’s Attorney Steve Steve Gregorowicz asked Carlson if it was appropriate to touch the student’s clothing, he answered no.
Carlson and the other student who testified said during the brief interaction there was no change in anyone’s demeanor or any breach of peace.
Carlson said he saw it as a relaxed and casual interaction, just checking in with the student.
Carlson, who said the girls often talked about fashion and he was just trying to make a connection, said he did not see that his actions were “provoking” to the student.
During this time, just coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the principal’s tagline was “Relationships, not rigor,” Carlson said.
Teachers were encouraged to check in on students and their progression back into the school setting, he said.
Following an investigation into the incident, Carlson received a written warning from the district, records obtained by the Northwest Herald through the Freedom of Information Act request show.
The letter detailed the student’s allegations and warned Carlson that any additional instances of a similar nature may result in further disciplinary action, including possible termination.
During closing arguments, Walsh said “What is inappropriate does not become illegal.”
He likened the scenario to a teacher chewing tobacco or using profanity in front of students. He said though it may be inappropriate, “it doesn’t rise to the level of criminal.”
Walsh also pointed to the variations in the student’s account of what happened and “the 100% contradiction” of his witness and the video.
However, Assistant State’s Attorney Ashur Youash said in closing arguments, “It is not acceptable, it is criminal and it is battery and disorderly conduct” for a “grown man, a teacher,” someone who is not her parent and who is a mandated reporter to touch her.
Carlson still faces a second case of battery that alleges on Sept. 21, 2022, Carlson approached another student from behind during class and touched the student’s buttocks with his open hand, according to court documents.
A status for that case was set for Oct. 12 and trial for Oct. 16.