A girl said a teacher took photos up her skirt. Police discovered she wasn’t the only victim

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A substitute teacher caught taking pictures of students at Warden Elementary School has been sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.

Michael S. Leavitt’s personal library of child pornography images was discovered after a student reported the teacher had placed his cellphone under her skirt and taken pictures during class.

That October 2017 report eventually led investigators to search Leavitt’s home and find more than 600 images of child pornography on his iPhones, iPad and computer, according to court documents.

Most of those discovered images were downloaded from the internet more than a decade ago in March 2009.

However, Leavitt also had “numerous images of students at Warden Elementary and other students,” and he told detectives he took the pictures without the kids’ knowledge, documents said.

Many leadership roles

In addition to his educator role, Leavitt was a Warden city councilman, a volunteer firefighter, a Boy Scout troop leader and a leader in his ward with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

A federal grand jury returned an indictment against him in September 2018 for possession of child pornography and receipt of child pornography.

The possession charge was dismissed with his guilty plea in March to receiving child pornography.

On Wednesday, Chief Judge Thomas O. Rice followed the prosecutor’s recommendation and ordered the 10-year sentence during a hearing in U.S. District Court in Spokane.

Defense sought leniency

The defense asked for less time.

Matthew Campbell, Leavitt’s defense attorney, said “this behavior is truly aberrant” and blamed it on a pornography addiction and decades-long struggle with substance abuse.

He said Leavitt was self-medicating with opiates at the time he was taking pictures of students.

“The worst thing a person has done is not the sum total of his/her existence. Rather, an act should be considered against the background of a person’s life as a whole,” Campbell wrote in a sentencing document.

“Michael’s life demonstrates that he has done much good for his family and his community. Punishment for his bad acts may be warranted, but it should also be measured.”

A parent’s nightmare

Assistant U.S. Attorney David M. Herzog said Leavitt’s conduct is a parent’s nightmare and violates the “sacred societal principle” that it is the job of adults to protect children in their care.

“In addition to the specific trauma to the ... girl in his classroom, it is difficult to overstate how damaging (Leavitt’s) conduct is to the psychological and social well-being of schoolchildren, parents and the rest of society,” Herzog wrote in his sentencing document.

“We simply cannot live in a community in which the act of sending a vulnerable child off to school puts her at risk of her teacher making her a sexual object and trying to obtain sexual images of her for his own gratification.”

Herzog pointed out that Leavitt held numerous authority positions in the Warden community — teacher, fireman, ecclesiastical leader — in which children should have been comfortable reporting misconduct to him, yet he was the one with inappropriate behavior.

“When the fox is in charge of all the henhouses, where can the hens turn?” he wrote.

Rice suggested Leavitt participate in sex offender management and residential drug abuse programs while in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Register as sex offender

Leavitt must register as a sex offender after his release from prison, be on court supervision for 10 years and pay $3,000 in restitution to one of the child pornography victims whose picture was in his collection.

The judge noted that the lives of the child victims in the sexually explicit pictures and videos will never be the same, and Leavitt was not the type of child pornography defendant who only acted alone in front of a computer without access to children, according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Rice found that the substitute teacher’s attempted interactions with young children merited a more serious sentence, and he was close to deserving of a life sentence for child exploitation conduct, the release said.

Joseph H. Harrington, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington, said the case sends a strong message that federal, state and local law enforcement “are firmly committed to protecting the public from individuals with a sexual interest in children who receive and collect child pornography.”

Harrington, in the news release, commended Warden police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for their handling of the case.

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Kristin M. Kraemer covers the judicial system and crime issues for the Tri-City Herald. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years in Washington and California.