Former Carroll teacher gets 18 months

Merson admitted to sexual contact with nine students

September 27, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

A Carroll County judge yesterday ordered a former permanent substitute teach- er from Francis Scott Key High School to spend 18 months in county jail, dismissing her lawyer's argument that the young educator has suffered enough since she was arrested and charged with having inappropriate sexual contact with nine male students.

Kimberly L. Merson, 25, of Union Bridge also must complete five years' probation after being released from jail, have no unsupervised contact with children during those five years, register as a sex offender and complete her therapy program.

The jail term prompted tears from Merson and many of the about 40 friends, relatives and members of her church who were in court yesterday for the sentencing hearing and who lingered afterward to comfort Merson and each other.

It also brought relief to prosecutors and investigators who have faced an uphill battle in pursuing criminal charges when much of the reaction to the scandal at Carroll's smallest high school has focused on jokes of a sexual nature about teen-age boys and older women.

Deputy State's Attorney Tracy A. Gilmore spoke about such reactions during her remarks to the judge, pointing out that several hours of radio talk shows were devoted exclusively to this case.

"Somehow, because this involves sex, it has taken on a different light," she told Carroll Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. "I can't imagine we'd be having these debates if she had sold drugs [to the students] or just served them alcohol. The tide needs to be shifted. A message needs to be sent to this defendant and to this community that this was a crime and it needs to be punished."

But defense attorney Richard D. Bennett argued that Merson already has endured enough after her arrest four months ago on 15 counts of child sexual abuse and eight lesser charges. She pleaded guilty in July to four counts of felony sexual child abuse, admitting that she had inappropriate sexual contact with nine students she knew from school and that she served alcohol to them and another boy.

"This woman has truly, truly suffered enormous punishment, humiliation and shame," Bennett said. "We have a situation where we don't want to tear this woman down any further. ... I urge the mercy of the court. Just to get another pound of flesh out of her with incarceration is just not appropriate."

The psychiatrist Merson has been seeing weekly since her arrest, Dr. Gary W. Nyman, concurred.

He testified that Merson's sexual contact with the nine boys was "an aberration" and that she has the emotional maturity of a 16- or 17-year-old. He suggested that an overly protective family and a sheltered childhood left her vulnerable and fragile. An "ugly duckling reaction" and a desire to relive her teen-age years in a more satisfying way led her to give in to her temptations, Nyman testified.

Merson told police during her first interrogation in May that she considered herself ugly as a teen-ager and that braces, glasses and her hairstyle made her unattractive to the kinds of boys -- popular athletes -- with whom she initiated sexual contact at Key High School.

"Now I can be attractive to them," she told investigators, according to a police report from the interview. "I'll tell you the truth. When I went to Key High School for the job, I told myself, `Don't work at a high school. It will just be too tempting.'"

For Gilmore, that statement was proof that Merson knew what she was doing.

"As parents, we expect to be able to send our kids to school to be educated and to be safe -- not to become the target or love object of a teacher," the prosecutor said. "I'm having a hard time being able to chalk this up to some aberrational behavior. Maybe if it was one boy she had some emotional attachment to, it would be a different story."

Instead, Gilmore said, Merson groomed several boys to be sexual partners, starting out with flirtatious notes and hugs that culminated in sex at the school, in cars, at her home and at another residence.

It was Merson -- not the boys -- who initiated the relationships, the prosecutor said. She developed and distributed nude photos of herself, wore provocative clothing to school, and pursued the boys despite their attempts to avoid her, Gilmore said. She warned them not to tell anyone of her advances, Gilmore told the court.

Most disturbing, the prosecutor said, was Merson's statement to police regarding the youngest boy with whom she had sexual contact. "She said, `I can't believe he'd do this to me,' and essentially described a forcible encounter and lays this at the feet of a 15-year-old boy," Gilmore said. "When confronted again [by investigators], she comes clean" and acknowledged that she wanted to have sex with the boy.

In sentencing Merson to a five-year prison term and suspending all but 18 months of it, the judge emphasized that Merson -- rather than her family or her upbringing -- was responsible for her behavior.

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