YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — Testimony began Thursday in the trial of a former Poland Township school resource officer and Austintown trustee accused of sexual misconduct with a Seminary High School student.
Steve Kent, 54, is on trial before Judge John Durkin in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court on three counts of sexual battery and one count of tampering with evidence.
Jury selection in the case began Monday and was completed late Wednesday afternoon.
The state Attorney General’s Office is prosecuting the case to avoid any conflicts of interest.
Assistant Attorney General Kara Keating said in her opening argument that the case is pretty simple: “boy meets girl.” However, Keating said, the relationship progresses to a sexual one, and later, criminal.
“The boy isn’t just a boy. He’s a man. He’s 34 years older than the girl. He’s a school resource officer.”
They exchanged messages, then nude pictures, and began seeing each other outside of school hours, Keating said.
Then, a family friend who knew of the relationship told school officials. But that person also told Kent that she knew of their relationship and that she was going to tell authorities, Keating said. After that conversation, Kent deleted information on his phone about the relationship, Keating said.
The victim also told a social worker about the relationship, Keating said.
Authorities also managed to get cellphone evidence from Kent and the victim.
Defense attorney John Juhasz told jurors in his opening statement that jurors must decide based on the evidence, reminding them that they must pay attention to what prosecutors will show them during the trial.
Juhasz said the state’s case will largely rely on testimony from witnesses, and juries must decipher that testimony to get to the truth. Juhasz also said that some things jurors will learn “ain’t going to be pretty,” but he added, “This isn’t a popularity contest,” saying that even if jurors don’t like some things, that doesn’t mean those things are illegal.
“A ‘he said, she said’ case must still be proved by a reasonable doubt,” Juhasz said.
The victim testified she knew Kent as the resource officer and they began talking when his son died her freshman year. She said Kent sought her out because her mother died when she was younger and Kent wanted advice on how to shepherd his daughter through the grief process.
The two began talking after a while on Instagram and then Snapchat, she testified. She said she first reached out on Instagram because she had a traffic ticket and wanted to know how to get out of it. She still had to pay the ticket, she said.
They had casual conversations at first, and after a while, the conversations became more personal, she said.
“It was definitely a progression over time,” she said.
She said she did not think of Kent romantically.
“I thought of him as an adult figure in my life I trusted,” she said.
Kent’s comments became more personal and then he started sending her photos, some of them nude, she testified. Some of the comments made her uncomfortable, but she said she was afraid to say anything.
After a while, she began sending him pictures also, she testified. They also began to meet, she testified, sometimes when he was in a police cruiser where sexual contact was made while Kent was in uniform, she testified.
They would normally make plans in advance to meet up somewhere, usually on social media, she testified, and sometimes she would get out of class to talk to him.
“Basically every day,” she said of the frequency of those meetings.
The encounters became more sexual. The victim said she didn’t want to, but she was afraid of what would happen if she didn’t.
“He made it clear what he wanted,” she testified. “I felt like I was completely in his power.”
The victim testified that she eventually told an older female friend about her relationship. A few days later, she told her dad, she testified.
The woman was going to tell her father and called but before she talked to her father, the victim testified she “broke down” and told him.
Kent is accused of engaging in sexual conduct on April 29 or 30, 2021; May 20, 2021; and May 31 or June 1, 2021, while he was a person of authority employed by a school that the victim in the case attended.
The tampering with evidence charge accuses Kent of altering, hiding or destroying documents on June 6, 2021, while knowing that an official investigation took place.
Kent was indicted in April 2022.
The social worker testified that during a two-hour interview with the victim, the victim, who was 17 at the time, told her of sexual activity with Kent, where the conduct took place and also that they exchanged nude photos.
The sexual encounters took place at various parking lots on U.S. 224 in Boardman and Canfield, the social worker testified.
The social worker also said the victim told her she knew Kent for several years because he was the resource officer in the district and they began talking in 2019.
The social worker’s testimony corroborated the victim’s testimony that Kent had lost a child and the victim had lost her mother and that Kent suggested the victim mentor his daughter because she was having a tough time getting over the loss of her sibling, the social worker testified.
One thing the social worker said stuck out in her mind was the descriptions the victim was able to give of Kent’s bedroom because of photos he sent her and also the interior of his truck, which was where the sexual activity reportedly took place.