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Wasilla elementary teacher charged with sex abuse enters not guilty plea

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: October 16, 2018
  • Published October 16, 2018

PALMER — The Wasilla elementary teacher accused of sexually abusing students says he isn't guilty of the growing list of charges against him.

Lukis Nighswonger, the 35-year-old former Iditarod Elementary teacher, entered a not guilty plea through his lawyer during a Palmer Superior Court hearing on Tuesday afternoon.

A teenager who says she was one of the popular teacher's victims was there to watch.

Madalyn Turnbull was a student in Nighswonger's class seven and eight years ago when she was in third and fourth grades at Iditarod. She's a junior at Wasilla High School now.

"He was really touchy," Turnbull said after the hearing. Her mother sat next to her on a bench.

"He would ask if it's OK," she said, starting to cry. "You would think when you're young that somebody you trust so much isn't going to hurt you."

Turnbull said the teacher touched her inappropriately, though not to the level described by some other victims.

Nighswonger's former students told investigators he touched their genitals beneath their clothes.

He was Turnbull's cross-country and track coach. Her mother volunteered in his class. She and her friends returned to visit his classroom, even this year.

Turnbull said it doesn't necessarily make her feel better to talk about what happened. Instead, she said, it's ruined what should have been fond memories of school.

Nighswonger encouraged older students to help in the class. He kept personal photos of her and her friends behind his desk.

"He's why I wanted to be a teacher," she said. Asked if she still wants to be a teacher, she shook her head no.

Turnbull told her mother about what happened after the first news stories emerged late last month.

She contacted authorities but has not been scheduled for an interview as part of the investigation yet, they said.

A Wasilla police spokeswoman wasn't available for comment Thursday afternoon.

The Mat-Su school district has sent letters to more than 300 households with children who had Nighswonger as a teacher in his time at Iditarod, starting in 2005.

The family knows "every single victim," Lorie Turnbull, Maddy's mother, said.

All four of her children had Nighswonger as a teacher, Turnbull said. They all loved him.

Lorie Turnbull said the Iditarod school community has been very supportive. But she's angry the Mat-Su school district didn't step in sooner to protect students.

"This could have been ended a long time ago," she said.

Maddy Turnbull and her mother Lorie Turnbull talk to the media after Lukis Nighswonger was arraigned on additional charges in Palmer on Tuesday. Maddy Turnbull is one of Nighswonger’s victims. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

Nighswonger was allowed to continue teaching after students began reporting concerning behavior.

The first report came in 2012 when a boy who was about 9 in 2008 reported to Wasilla police that Nighswonger had touched his genitals.

The school district wasn't informed by the Wasilla Police Department because no criminal charges were filed.

In January, an older girl who said she came to visit Nighswonger in 2013-2014 said he touched her genitals. That report was taken by the state Office of Children's Services but not shared with police.

School district officials say no criminal charges resulted. They refused to say what, if any, action was taken with the teacher.

Nighswonger's classroom was moved downstairs, next to the new principal's office, this year.

Nighswonger was arrested in late September only after he admitted to touching a former student who's now 14 but was in his class in 2014.

Lukis Nighswonger is arraigned on additional charges on Tuesday. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

A fourth child was added to the felony sex-abuse case this month based on their description of "hand to genital" contact that occurred in 2015-2016, according to a Palmer grand jury indictment.

Nighswonger appeared by video from Mat-Su Pretrial Facility during his first appearance in court on felony sex-abuse of a minor charges in late September.

He is scheduled for his next hearing in late November, with trial week currently set for mid-December.

Anchorage Daily News generally does not name alleged victims of sexual abuse. Turnbull, with her mother's permission, said she wanted to talk about what happened.

She plans to attend as many of Nighswonger's hearings as she can.

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