Sex abuse charges against former high school employee involve special needs student
POCATELLO — A local man charged with sexual abuse of a minor taught special needs students at Highland High School, according to newly released court documents.
Eric Steven Popely, 47, was arrested Wednesday after Pocatello Police Department detectives uncovered evidence the man allegedly groped a 15-year-old non-verbal, special needs student under her clothing.
Popely was the head of Highland High School’s developmental learning program and was working with the teenager, according to an affidavit of probable cause.
Police were contacted by school administrators at 2:30 p.m. Jan. 21 and were told there was a witness, as well as video surveillance, of the alleged abuse. Officers were unable to interview Popely on-site as he had already been placed on administrative leave and removed from the campus by Pocatello/Chubbuck School District 25 administrators.
The surveillance video was viewed by officers but parts of the incident were unclear, according to court documents. What could be seen from the video, according to the investigating officers, was Popely entering the classroom with the victim before closing the door at 11:13 a.m. School technicians arrived at the classroom five minutes later to find the door locked. The techs told police that when they entered the room, Popely was standing at the far corner of the classroom, with the victim on the opposite side of the room from him.
Popely directed the techs to another room to hook up a TV and returned to the room at 11:33 a.m., once again locking it. He would later tell police that he customarily locked his door as part of active-shooter preparedness.
During the incident, an adult witness told police she was headed to the restroom when she looked through a door window and observed Popely appear to inappropriately touch the student. The witness described Popely touching the child under her clothing.
Due to the angle of the camera, the surveillance video does not directly show the alleged sexual act. Popely can be seen standing behind the victim, nearly in contact with her with his arm “slightly forward,” the affidavit says. It does show him reach around the victim. The entire interaction took about 55 seconds.
PPD went to the room and stood where the witness, who was visible in the surveillance video, had been. Shool administrators mimicked the motions described by the witness and the officer noted the administrator’s arm was plainly visible through the classroom door window.
“I could see where his hand was without a doubt while he moved [it],” an officer noted in the report.
A school administrator told PPD that when they went to the classroom to inform Popely he was going to be placed on administrative leave, he was found in a darkened closet in the room, with a different special needs student, also described as non-verbal.
The 15-year-old’s family was contacted regarding the incident and they said they would monitor the girl for any emotional changes that could result from abuse. The family declined a sexual assault examination, saying that it would only further traumatize the young girl.
In an interview with detectives, Highland administrators described Popely as appearing “defeated” when he was brought to the office following the alleged incident. They said that he did not defend himself and only apologized, they told the police.
Popely explained to detectives in a subsequent interview that he normally would not have students alone in his classroom, but had been working through the day in question differently due to school buses running late. When asked directly if something bad had happened with the student, Popely responded “yes.”
He initially admitted to police that he accidentally brushed the victim’s breast. Reports then note that Popley became “withdrawn” and “shaken” and took long pauses and drinks of water, according to the affidavit. He then said he had accidentally reached up under the victim’s sweater, but readjusted when he realized what had happened.
When officers told him his claim did not match what was seen on surveillance, Popely admitted he grabbed the victim’s breast out of sexual frustration stemming from a recent romantic separation. He added that it was an “error in judgment.”
Popely told police that this had not happened before, asking to take a polygraph examination to prove that to be true.
He was arrested, charged and transferred to Bannock County Jail where he is being held on a $70,000 bail.
Popely has been scheduled for a preliminary hearing on Feb. 4.