San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

January 5th, 2011
Former SMHS teacher pleads guilty to improper relationship

010511harris

William Shawn Harris.

By SEAN BATURA
News Reporter

Former San Marcos High School (SMHS) teacher William Shawn Harris recently pleaded guilty to one felony count of having an improper relationship with an 18-year-old female student.

Harris, 35, plea bargained after eight months of pre-trial action, which included a motion filed by his attorney that argued teachers have a constitutional right to engage in consensual sex with students aged 17 and older.

Before District Judge Charles Ramsay could act on the various motions, Harris plea bargained.

Ramsay is expected to approve or deny the plea bargain agreement at a punishment hearing on Jan. 12.

Under the terms of the plea bargain agreement, Harris would endure seven years probation, pay a $2,500 fine, undergo psychological drug/alcohol abuse evaluation and counseling, receive individual counseling, surrender his teaching license, and refrain from any contact with the young woman and her family.

The terms of the agreement exempt Harris from reimbursing the county for his court-appointed attorney and from undergoing sex offender treatment.

In other motions filed with the county, Harris demanded that his accusers identify themselves to the court and to himself. Police and prosecutors had kept the accusers’ names from court documents to protect their identities, though the female student’s name now appears in at least one court document.

Police said they learned of the teacher-student sexual affair from an “outcry witness.” According to SMPD Officer Brad Follis, the female student told the outcry witness, “in explicit detail, over the course of several discussions,” about five separate instances of sexual intercourse between her and Harris that started last fall and continued into this year.

SMPD Commander Chase Stapp said in March that an “outcry witness” would generally be a friend of the alleged victim or a trusted authority figure who takes the matter to the police.

Harris, an assistant coach in volleyball and girls’ basketball at SMHS, was placed on suspension with pay last Feb. 24, when the school district began its investigation of the matter.

Follis interviewed Harris in the presence of his attorney, Victorea Brown. Follis said Harris denied all allegations. When police interviewed Harris’ student on March 18, she admitted to six instances of sexual intercourse with Harris — twice in his classroom, one each in two bathrooms at the coach’s offices at the high school, once in a cul de sac in her vehicle, and once at his house.

“The female student became extremely emotional during the interview,” said the arrest affidavit, “and expressed fear that Coach William Shawn Harris would lose his job, family, etc., as a result of her telling the truth about the situation.”

Harris’ arrest affidavit said the female student “ended the relationship with Coach William Shawn Harris.”

During the police interview, the female student made a call to Harris’s cell phone in the presence of two SMPD officers, including Follis. Police recorded the call, which is allowed in Texas when one party consents. A review of the recording, according the arrest affidavit, revealed that Harris told the student he should not have allowed their relationship to occur. Harris told her he was an “idiot” who “broke down under the pressure of you” and was “so sorry” when she asked why he took part in the incidents.

Police jailed Harris a day after their interview with his student, and he was charged with six felony counts of having an improper relationship with a student.

Before Harris pleaded guilty, his attorney, Cliff McCormack, argued that the state statute under which Harris was charged violates both the Texas and U.S. Constitutions “because there is a fundamental constitutional right for adults to engage in adult consensual sexual activity.” McCormack cited Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) as the precedent case for his position. McCormack argued the statute applied to Harris, Texas Penal Code 21.12, and violates amendments to federal and state constitutions.

Hays County District Attorney Sherri Tibbe (D-Buda) recused herself — and her entire office — from prosecuting Harris’ case. The female student’s father is a long-time police officer, and probably at least professionally affiliated with the District Attorney’s Office. District Judge Bill Henry signed the order authorizing the recusal. Henry no is longer hearing the case. Henry may be acquainted with the student’s father as well —  they are “friends” on Facebook.com.

Travis County Rosemary Lehmberg was appointed to prosecute the case. Lehmberg in turn appointed a subordinate, Kelly Gier, to prosecute the case.

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