MOUNT VERNON – A former Mount Vernon Middle School gym teacher received the maximum sentence Thursday for engaging in sexual activity with a student in 2018.
Knox County Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Wetzel sentenced Andrew Walsh, 37, to five years in prison, plus five years of parole supervision following his release. Walsh will be required to register as a Tier 3 sex offender for the rest of his life.
Walsh pleaded guilty March 25 to one count of sexual battery, a third-degree felony, which encompassed multiple instances of sexual contact with a 14-year-old student in the fall of 2018. One of those instances occurred at the middle school.
"I think the maximum sentence was appropriate in this case because he abused his teacher/student relationship to have sex with this girl," Knox County Prosecutor Chip McConville said. "And he did it multiple times, over a long period of time. It was apparent he had groomed her for those kind of activities."
Wetzel said Thursday he considered the evidence in the case, the pre-sentence investigation conducted following the guilty plea, and other factors in determining Walsh's sentence.
He read two thick stacks of letters, written by supporters of Walsh and the victim, and he also heard emotional courtroom statements from both sides.
Walsh and his wife, Sarah, pleaded for leniency.
"This whole situation has humbled me to the point of complete brokenness," Walsh told Wetzel through tears, noting that "no sentence could compare" to what he's endured since his arrest last July.
Walsh apologized directly to the victim and her family, who sat two rows away, "for the hurt, anger, and pain that my past behavior and poor decisions have caused." He took full responsibility for the situation and said he was "praying for their healing."
"I am truly sorry," Walsh continued. "I was the adult, I was in the position of trust, and I take full responsibility for what happened."
He also apologized to his family, including his wife and four children, and to the Mount Vernon teaching community, which he said he "let down."
Walsh said he has renewed his commitment to the Christian faith over the last nine months and has worked through counseling to get better. Sarah Walsh echoed this, adding that "he has never once blamed anybody else for this."
"He has been transformed ..." Sarah Walsh told Wetzel through tears. "I promise you his heart has changed for the better. And my kids, they need their daddy."
The defendant's wife said the last nine months have been the "most painful" of her life.
Her family had to move houses and change churches, in an effort to distance itself from Mount Vernon. The family has struggled financially, she added, as Andrew Walsh lost his full-time job and permanently surrendered his teacher's license.
Sarah Walsh gave birth to the family's fourth child in January.
"We have suffered so deeply," she said.
There were roughly 20 people standing outside the courthouse in the rain on Thursday, showing support for Walsh. While Sarah Walsh said none of them support his past actions, all support "who he is and who he wants to become."
"He is a broken man, but he is not beyond repair ..." Sarah Walsh said. "Please let him come home."
Walsh's attorney, Peter Scranton of Luftman, Heck and Associates, asked for a sentence of community control and no prison time. Assistant County Prosecutor Christine Williams, meanwhile, asked for "at least four-and-a-half years" of incarceration.
She thanked Det. Sgt. James Ferenbaugh of the Knox County Sheriff's Office, who led the initial investigation, and praised the victim for her courage in coming forward last summer.
While she did not speak Thursday, the victim and her mother both offered powerful testimony during the guilty-plea hearing last month, Williams said. They reportedly described Walsh's grooming of the victim and public reputation as a religious person.
Williams said the victim has suffered physically and emotionally as a result of this experience. But her future remains bright. She believes the victim has been empowered during the process.
"I don't think this act has defined her," Williams said.
Williams said Walsh's actions reverberated well beyond the victim and her family. She said "the community has been a victim as well," as the situation has threatened to unwind years of earned trust between local parents and teachers.
"Teachers are trusted to take care of our children," Williams said. "We do not by any means think we're going to drop them off at the hands of a predator."
She said Walsh "acted like a wolf in sheep's clothing," preying on the victim, who was just 14 years old at the time. But she said the vast majority of teachers have no such intentions.
Handing Walsh the maximum sentence would not only send a message to the community's students and parents, Williams said, but also to its teachers.
"We need to send a message ... and take the bad apple out," Williams told Wetzel. "(By doing so), we'll honor the good ones."
He noted the severe physical and psychological toll Walsh's actions had taken on the victim, given her age and his position of authority. He agreed with Williams that Walsh's actions had larger ramifications, beyond this case.
"As a teacher, you held a position of trust. You violated that trust," Wetzel told Walsh. "You have caused a serious wave of fear in this community as a result of that."
Cases like this can tear at the social fabric of the community, Wetzel continued, and accountability is needed to repair it.
"The future of this community and this nation depend on the confidence our young people have in this system," Wetzel told Walsh. If the next generation loses that confidence, Wetzel warned, "We'll pay the consequences."
Wetzel acknowledged the impact Walsh's sentence would have on his family, and he recognized Sarah Walsh's pain.
"The problem with criminal sentencing is ... there is a ripple effect on innocent people as well," Wetzel said. "But it has to be done."
Walsh taught physical education at Mount Vernon Middle School for nine years before his arrest on July 15, 2020. His victim came forward to the Knox County Sheriff's Office days earlier.
Walsh was suspended without pay by the Mount Vernon Board of Education on July 21, and his position remained vacant throughout the school year. Walsh officially resigned in February, according to Mount Vernon Superintendent Bill Seder.
"Situations like these hurt so many people," Seder said in a March email. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to all involved."
Walsh is still facing a civil suit in Knox County Common Pleas Court, according to the court records. The docket lists two plaintiffs, "Jane Doe 1" and "Jane Doe 2," and is scheduled for a jury trial in September.
While McConville said his office looked into the possibility of multiple victims in the criminal case, nothing materialized.
“We did investigate whether there were other victims, but none came forward," McConville said.
Seder said Mount Vernon City Schools will "carefully evaluate" whether or not it wants to hire a replacement for Walsh. He seemed open to the idea of considering systemic changes to prevent similar situations from occurring in the future, but did not list any specific measures currently being discussed.
"All staff are required to complete training on a yearly basis," Seder said. "We are open to evaluating and providing additional training."