BY ART BUKOWSKI
TRAVERSE CITY — Marc Morris formally admitted his criminal behavior in court, and Kelly Hall is relieved.
Morris, a former East Middle School custodian, had repeated sexual contact with a female student, then 13, beginning in early 2010. Morris’ behavior and fallout from it placed tremendous stress on Traverse City Area Public Schools, said Hall, the district’s school board president.
“It’s been a very, very hard time for the school. Trust was broken in the worst possible way,” she said. “When the defendant pleads guilty, I think that there’s a sense of relief, in that the admission of wrongdoing allows us to move on.”
Morris, 29, was charged in August, and on Tuesday pleaded guilty to two counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct with a person 13 to 15. Three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct were dismissed as part of the deal.
He faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison, but likely will receive a term between four and eight years based on state sentencing guidelines.
Morris is set to be sentenced Oct. 19. He remains in jail without bond.
Police said Morris — the son of former TCAPS board president Gerald Morris — had an “ongoing sexual relationship” with a girl who was a student at East Middle School while Morris worked there.
The sexual encounters happened multiple times near an East Bay Township trail and in Morris’ East Bay Township home, court records show. They appeared consensual, police said, but Michigan law prohibits anyone under the age of 16 from legally consenting to sexual activity.
Perhaps the biggest upside to Morris’ plea is that the victim won’t have to testify during a trial, Hall said. The situation likely would have been extremely stressful and difficult for the girl.
“Nobody wants a kid to have to go through that,” she said.
The plea also came as good news to Superintendent Steve Cousins.
“I think it’s good that this situation can be put to rest, and the student and family can begin the healing process,” he said.
The plea was held early Tuesday after Monday discussions, court officials said. The plea was tacked onto a day dedicated to civil proceedings.
Pleas aren’t often held at 8 a.m. or scheduled on non-criminal days, but assistant prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg, who handled the case, said the time and day were prompted by Morris’ attorney’s schedule and not intended to avoid media exposure.
Morris attorney, Patrick Heintz, didn’t return a call for comment.
Moeggenberg said the plea likely is what’s best for the victim.
“This is going to be easier for her to deal with, not having to get on the stand,” she said.
The fallout from Morris’ arrest also resulted in suspensions for two TCAPS administrators. Cousins suspended Cindy Berck, the district’s director of human resources, for a week without pay. She approved the hiring of Marc W. Morris as a custodian at East Middle School, and Cousins said that hiring violated the district’s nepotism policy.
TCAPS' written policy prevents children of school board members to be hired on a permanent basis, yet Marc Morris was elevated to permanent status a month before Gerald Morris left the school board in December 2008. Gerald Morris spoke with Berck about the hiring before Marc Morris was hired, though she denied he put pressure on her to hire him.
Marc Morris eventually was fired in July 2011 after he came to work drunk.
Cousins also suspended Cathy Meyer-Looze, TCAPS director of professional development and former principal at East Middle School, for two weeks without pay. He said she failed to aggressively pursue and document misconduct allegations against Marc Morris when he worked at the school.
Both suspensions came after the Record-Eagle reported that the district violated its own nepotism policy by hiring Morris, and that district officials documented six separate incidents of inappropriate behavior by Morris. That documentation was compiled after he was fired.
The district hopes to prevent future issues with both nepotism and inappropriate contact between students and district employees, Cousins said.
Gerald Morris declined comment on Wednesday.
News Editor GLENN PUIT contributed to this report.