A South Hutchinson woman who posted comments on Facebook falsely suggesting a Nickerson teacher was a child predator — while the educator was actually providing foster care for the woman’s son — was convicted Monday in an online harassment case that may be one of the first of its kind in the state.
Magistrate Cheryl Allen found Melissa Wadkins guilty of two counts of harassment by a telecommunications device and two counts of criminal false communication, exposing another to public hatred, contempt or ridicule. Allen’s ruling followed a bench trial, during which the woman, the teacher and her son all testified, the Hutchinson News reported.
It was certainly a rare case for Reno County, and perhaps the first such conviction in the county, according to the prosecutor. Allen found Wadkins, 39, guilty of the four misdemeanors and dismissed two other counts filed in the alternative.
Allen then sentenced Wadkins to 90 days on each count, from which she was granted a year’s probation.
Court records show the teen was removed from Wadkins’s home last year, after he was charged in juvenile court with one count of aggravated assault for threatening his step-father with a knife. The teen subsequently pleaded to a reduced charge of misdemeanor assault.
The court initially released the teen, but then placed him back in state custody, records show, after Wadkins refused to sign the probation order.
The record described her as “belligerent, stating she objected to stipulations that a probation officer would have authority to search her residence or car without a warrant or order a drug or alcohol test of the teen or parent “upon reasonable suspicion.”
The teacher, after learning of the teen’s placement, offered to be a foster parent.
The charges accused Wadkins of posting a photo of the teacher March 22 on Facebook, along with the question “TEACHER OR PREDATOR?” on March 22. Wadkins then made a second Facebook post April 15, again with the teachers’ photo, stating “I TAKE TEEN BOYS HOME WITH ME.”
“The charge required we show she knowingly subjected the victim to public hatred,” said Reno County Assistant District Attorney Dan Gilligan. “She claimed, though she didn’t send it to a specific person, that she was just trying to communicate with friends, and that it was free speech.”
The student testified he believed that the posting was vindictive because he was happy in the teacher’s home.
“She researched enough to find a senior high school picture of the teacher, and she posted the picture with her name,” Gilligan said. “It took time and effort and it was directed at a specific person.”
The incident could have had more significant repercussions for the teacher, Gilligan said. But the school was aware the teacher was married with a happy home life and it contacted St. Francis to verify Wadkins’ allegations were baseless.