Amid outcry over animal feeding at Idaho school, prosecutor hands off case

Jill Parrish said she reported the feeding incident at Preston Junior High School to police because “it was the right thing to do.”
Jill Parrish said she reported the feeding incident at Preston Junior High School to police because “it was the right thing to do.”

Franklin County Prosecutor Vic A. Pearson said Tuesday that his office won’t be reviewing a case of alleged animal cruelty by a junior high teacher in Preston due to conflict of interest.

Pearson said in a news release that he’s turned over Preston police and Franklin County Sheriff’s Office reports on the incident to another prosecutor in the 6th Judicial District.

He didn’t specify which prosecutor would be making the charging decision, nor did he return a reporter’s call seeking that information.

Many people have inundated the school district and law enforcement after reading about unconfirmed reports on the internet that a biology teacher fed a live puppy to a snapping turtle at the school.

“There has been a considerable amount of public reaction regarding the allegations being made,” he said in the release. “I understand the reaction of the public regarding this incident but would ask for some patience at this point in time. Such delays are not uncommon to ensure we have met the legal and ethical standards required by the criminal justice system.”

“The volume of calls being received by both law enforcement and my office is hindering our ability to complete what needs to be done to reach the end goal of justice in the case,” Pearson said.

Public outrage grows as both school and law enforcement officials remain mum on the details of what occurred on March 7 at Preston Junior High School.

The Statesman received numerous calls and emails Tuesday, a day after the story went worldwide on the internet — with unconfirmed details of what occurred in a biology teacher’s classroom after school hours.

“If that was you or I, we’d be in jail. At least out here in Indiana, we take things like that seriously,” said Ronald Warner, a Columbus, Indiana, man who said he’d never before called a newspaper reporter.

Warner saw the reports of the incident on the internet.

“My god, how inhuman treatment is that? How could a person do that?” he said.

R. Lutz, a reader in Oregon, said she was unable to reach Preston school officials by phone Tuesday.

“The school administrators should have fired (the teacher) immediately and if they cannot understand why, then there is something seriously wrong with the school administrators,” she wrote.

Local law enforcement officials have declined to confirm or deny rumors about what occurred.

The school district put out a news release about the incident, saying only that there had been a “regrettable” use of biological specimens in an animal feeding after school.

Preston is about 300 miles east of Boise. The story caught the attention of animal welfare advocates in Idaho and beyond. The Boise-based Idaho Humane Society posted a note to its followers Monday night.

“Like many of you, we are deeply disturbed by this news,” the post read. “We will be following this situation closely and ensuring the full truth is disclosed and that if an act of animal cruelty occurred that the perpetrator is prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

Dr. Jeff Rosenthal, executive director of the Idaho Humane Society, said his social media manager was up all night moderating angry comments on that Facebook post. The organization on Wednesday called for an investigation into the incident.

“People are really upset,” he said. “We share the concern and the outrage, but we just have to keep it civil.”

Speaking generally, Rosenthal said the feeding of a live puppy to a turtle would be a violation of the state’s animal cruelty statutes. The Idaho Humane Society also contacted the Idaho Fish and Game to determine if the snapping turtle was legally obtained.

“There’s nothing under state law that would exempt that action from cruelty prosecution,” he said.

Preston School Superintendent Marc Gee did not respond to a request for more information Tuesday. His voicemail box was full.

Preston Mayor Mark Beckstead did not return a call for comment. A woman at City Hall said, “If this is about the dog issue, please call the Franklin County sheriff.”

The Preston woman who said she reported the incident at the junior high school to police the morning after it happened said she’s now a pariah in the small East Idaho community of about 5,200 people.

“I’ve been threatened,” Jill Parrish said. “This is a cut-and-dried case of animal cruelty. But they’re saying, ‘The teacher is a good teacher.’ Everybody loves him.”

More than 2,600 people have signed a petition on change.org in support of the accused teacher. “It’s time to stand up for one of the best science teachers in the Preston Idaho School District,” the petition reads.

At 5 p.m. Tuesday, more than 1,400 people had signed an online petition at Care2 petition seeking to have the teacher fired.

“Care2 members are staunch pet lovers and believe that if this dog was sick, it should have been properly cared for instead of being killed in front of impressionable high school students,” said Rebecca Gerber, Care2’s senior director of engagement in a press release about the petition.

Parrish, 40, said the accused biology teacher — whom the Statesman is not identifying without confirmation from police or the school district — was her teacher when she was a child growing up in Preston.

She said that because the teacher is beloved in the community, local officials don’t want to ruin his career. And those who are upset by the alleged actions of the teacher are afraid to speak publicly.

“Everybody is so scared of the repercussions,” said Parrish, who planned to hide out at a family member’s home to avoid threats and other backlash. “Anybody who thinks I am having fun doing this — I’m not. It’s the right thing to do.”

Katy Moeller: 208-377-6413, @KatyMoeller