POCATELLO — A former special education teacher at Highland High School was sentenced to a unified 14 years in prison Thursday for sexually abusing a nonverbal student inside his the school in January.
Eric Popely, 47, of Pocatello, received the sentence from 6th District Judge Robert C. Naftz during a sentencing hearing at the Bannock County Courthouse in Pocatello. Popely must serve at least four years incarcerated before being eligible for parole.
“A lesser sentence would depreciate the seriousness of the crime,” Naftz said as he handed down the sentence. “You do not accept responsibility for your actions, you abused your position of trust and preyed on a very vulnerable population of people. Prison will provide an appropriate punishment to you and serve as a detriment to others in the community.”
Popely was charged with one count of felony sexual abuse of a child under the age of 16 for inappropriately touching a 15-year-old nonverbal and autistic girl inside a Highland High School room on Jan. 21.
A paraprofessional witnessed the incident and reported it to school officials, who contacted Pocatello police to investigate.
Popely pleaded guilty to the felony charge in September as part of a plea bargain with Bannock County prosecutors that did not include a charge reduction or a promise to limit any sentencing recommendations.
Popely appeared in court dressed in a plaid collared shirt, slacks and tennis shoes. He remained mostly motionless, staring straight ahead throughout the proceeding and nodding only once as Naftz explained he had no criminal record before this incident. Numerous parents of Popely’s former students were present in the courtroom gallery during the proceeding, which was also streamed live over Naftz’s 6th District Court YouTube channel.
During the hearing, Bannock County Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Erin Tognetti said Popely was found to have been deceptive when responding to numerous questions posed to him during a polygraph test as part of a psychosexual evaluation used to determine his risk to the community to re-offend, resulting in Tognetti arguing for a maximum 25-year, fixed prison sentence against Popely.
Rilie Fry, Popely’s court-appointed Pocatello attorney, argued the deception was not indicative of there being additional victims in the case, but that Popely was deceptive about only abusing the 15-year-old nonverbal student once, stating that he acknowledges he abused the girl multiple times. Fry also argued that Popely receive a minimal prison term with the judge retaining jurisdiction in the case, based in part on the fact that Popely has experienced natural consequences as a result of his actions in that he can never work in a school setting again and that he was physically assaulted outside his workplace in September.
Known commonly as a “rider,” Naftz retaining jurisdiction on the case would have allowed Popely to receive sexual conduct treatment and programming while in the custody of the Idaho Department of Correction for up to one year. Popely would then have been released on probation upon successfully completing the program.
The mother of the nonverbal victim in the case provided a statement to the court before the sentence was handed down Thursday. The Idaho State Journal is not naming the mother, as it could potentially identify the 15-year-old autistic girl Popely sexually abused, who was also present in the courtroom.
The mother explained that since the incident occurred, her daughter has been distant with male figures in her life. Though the 15-year-old child cannot speak, the mother said her body language has changed in a manner to indicate that she understood what was happening to her.
Tognetti played a 50-second video captured by security cameras installed at Highland High School that police reviewed before criminally charging Popely. The video depicted a room door with a large window in which Popely and the 15-year-old child were standing behind when the sexual abuse occurred.
The Pocatello Police officer who initially interviewed Popely was also present in the courtroom.
Though Popely told the person who conducted the polygraph he was simply reaching around the child to open the door, the video shows Popely standing directly behind the child for the entire 50 seconds before the door opens and the child quickly steps away from Popely. A paraprofessional who initially reported the incident to Highland High School officials watched the interaction with Popely and the student for almost the entire 50 seconds. Tognetti said the video only shows about 50 seconds, but Popely was in the room with the student for 25 minutes.
Popely also provided the court with a brief statement in which he apologized to the 15-year-old child, her family, Highland High School and the entire community.
Naftz denied a motion from Tognetti to allow a parent of a different nonverbal student enrolled in Popely’s class to provide a collective statement from many concerned parents of Popely’s former students. The Idaho State Journal spoke to the parent, Natalie Houghton, who provided the statement she would have read had she been allowed.
“The actions of Eric Popely are a parent’s worst nightmare,” the statement read. “He preyed on those who couldn’t communicate his disgusting behavior and we will never know how many victims he targeted. It’s not a coincidence that he chose a career working with the most vulnerable population that he was able to exploit at his will. We now have to live with the knowledge of what he was caught doing not fully knowing the extent of his abuse. We will never know the entire truth.”
Following the hearing, several parents of Popely’s former students expressed frustration with the Pocatello-Chubbuck School District 25 administration for their response to the incident. Parents were concerned that no school district official was present for the sentencing hearing and that many parents first learned of the incident from the Journal’s initial coverage in January. Additionally, parents are concerned that not enough has been done to ensure a similar incident won’t occur in the future.
School District 25 issued the following statement when contacted Thursday evening:
“The District trusts the courts to set an appropriate legal consequence for actions that violate the law. Whenever District or school administration or other personnel learn of potential violations of the law or board policy, swift action is taken to ensure the safety of all learners and all staff.
“PCSD 25 follows state protocols for fingerprinting and background checks through the Idaho State Department of Education and Idaho State Police, which includes all staff and volunteers who may be with learners and athletes for an extended period of time.”
Popely was a Highland High School special education teacher since 2019, though his employment with the district ended in January following the allegations against him.
“I’m glad he’s going to prison,” Tognetti said following the hearing.