Karl Hartman said that one word in response each of three times he was asked, “How do you plead?”

The 55-year-old former Kingsley Area Schools teacher and principal, who was accused of criminal sexual conduct against multiple former students, stood before Judge Kevin Elsenheimer in the 13th Circuit Court on Friday to end nearly nine months of investigations and legal process.

Hartman accepted the terms of a plea agreement offered by the Grand Traverse County prosecutor that dropped six felony and two misdemeanor charges for which he was set to face trial beginning Nov. 18. Prosecutors said the incidents that generated the original charges — one felony first-degree criminal sexual conduct, four felony second-degree criminal sexual conduct, one felony accosting a minor for immoral purposes and two misdemeanor counts of furnishing alcohol to minors — occurred between 1988 and 2018.

Hartman pleaded guilty to three counts of assault with intent to commit sexual contact, stemming from accusations he spanked two former students for sexual gratification in his office when he was the principal at Kingsley Elementary School in 2004. The felony convictions carry a maximum five-year prison sentence that Hartman would serve concurrently if a judge accepts the plea terms.

Grand Traverse County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Kyle Attwood called the change of plea “a victory for the victims.”

“They feel vindicated in coming forward, that they were believed, that he admitted to doing what he did, that he is no longer a principal and no longer in a position to do this to other kids,” Attwood said. “People will be made aware that he was convicted of this offense and that he can’t be trusted around children.”

Both Attwood and Shawn Worden, Hartman’s attorney, said they did not expect to reach a plea agreement Friday but added there had been a lot of moving pieces during the past week as they worked out the details. One of those details, which Attwood said was vitally important to the accusers, was that Hartman be required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

Worden said it was an offer that Hartman “couldn’t pass up.” He pointed to the sentencing guidelines for a conviction on a first-degree criminal sexual conduct charge, which carries a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison and a possible life sentence. The other charges required 12-17 years in prison if convicted, and the lesser charges still were triple or quadruple what Hartman is likely to receive at sentencing, Worden said.

Worden said the sentencing guidelines he looked at for the offenses range between five and 23 months in prison with 40 months at the maximum.

“In a lot of ways, it’s a math problem,” he said.

Elsenheimer does have the ability to go above the guidelines and give Hartman a more harsh sentence. Sentencing is tentatively set for Nov. 1, but Elsenheimer said that date may move to separate it from other court matters and allow the victims an opportunity to testify if they choose.

“These are serious crimes. There is going to be some jail time associated with this,” Elsenheimer said.

Worden said Hartman also was worn down by the process, and was ready for it to be over.

Hartman was arrested Jan. 22 and arraigned the following day on the two second-degree counts of criminal sexual conduct, one accosting count and two furnishing alcohol counts. Prosecutors added more charges in the following months as more accusers came forward. Hartman faced 11 counts at one point before three charges were dropped in August.

Worden said Hartman was “done with the fight.”

“When a prosecutor stacks eight cases against you now, 11 previously, and then there’s additional alleged six or seven victims, they just say they’re going to try them at the same time and try them back to back to back and say, ‘Even if you win, we’re going to come with another set of cases’ — it’s very daunting,” Worden said. “The decision-making process was that this ends it and it controls the maximum, the worst-case scenario.”

The plea agreement also spares the accusers of having to testify at trial, Attwood said.

“It’s not a pleasant experience for victims to do that,” he said. “There can be some therapeutic benefit to facing your abuser in the courtroom, but that can also be done through sentencing and allocution where you don’t deal with the adversarial process that you do at trial. It’s a very public and very tense moment when they testify at trial.”

The Kingsley community also has some form of closure with the plea.

Kingsley Area Schools Superintendent Keith Smith said he was surprised by the news but happy that people can now begin to heal.

“It already has fractured the community,” Smith said. “At least for the community and the victims, they now have this so they can move forward. That’s a good conclusion to a dark chapter in Kingsley’s history.”

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