A former Bismarck gym teacher who admitted to having a sexual relationship with a ninth- grade male student in 2013 must serve 60 days in jail and will not have to register as a sex offender, South Central District Court Judge Bruce Romanick ruled Wednesday.
Susan Kathleen Duursma, 35, who pleaded guilty to Class B felony child abuse in May and resigned from her job in February, also received a six-year suspended prison sentence and five years of probation.
At the beginning of the Wednesday hearing, Burleigh County Assistant State’s Attorney Pamela Nesvig invited the father of the victim to speak.
When Nesvig asked the man what changes he had observed in his son, he answered that prior to the abuse, “my son has always been a laid-back boy.”
The boy was innocent, his father said, “and that was taken from him.”
The man described the impact that news media coverage, social media, and the words of “so-called friends” had on his son, causing him to become withdrawn despite his parents’ best efforts to shield him from the scrutiny.
“The only positive that’s come out of this is the rally and support” for the victim, his father said.
At one point, the victim’s father addressed Duursma directly.
“He’s a good boy, and that’s why you preyed on him,” he said.
Despite his anger toward Duursma, the victim’s father asked Romanick not to impose a mandatory sex offender registration if that meant Duursma would withdraw her guilty plea.
“You’d like this to end?” Romanick asked, and the victim’s father said he would.
Romanick also allowed Duursma to speak before he rendered his decision.
“I’m sorry for all the pain and harm I’ve caused you and your family,” Duursma, a parent herself, said to the father of the victim.
She added that she bore sole responsibility for what happened.
Romanick verbally wrestled with the merits of whether to impose a mandatory sex offender registration.
Child abuse is a crime against a child, but it is not a sex crime, though in Duursma’s case, sex was involved, Romanick said.
“It’s probably, Ms. Duursma, one of the harder cases I have to sit on,” the judge said.
While what Duursma did might qualify as victimization “under the Webster’s (Dictionary) definition,” Romanick said, it did not technically meet the North Dakota legal definition, based on an evaluation conducted by a doctor prior to the sentencing.
The relationship between Duursma and the victim started as a teacher-student relationship, and Romanick said it later morphed into something classifiable as predatory.
Romanick said Duursma would face significant consequences as a result of being a convicted felon.
She could have trouble finding employment, despite North Dakota having the lowest unemployement in the country, Romanick said.
In addition, the judge mandated that Duursma not consume any alcohol for the duration of her five-year probation. Though alcohol wasn’t a factor in Duursma’s abuse of the victim, Romanick said Duursma had struggled with addiction in the past so a no-alcohol order was appropriate.
In the end, the judge told Duursma he would not require her to register as a sex offender.
“That’s a big break, Ms. Duursma,” he said.
The judge didn’t hesitate to warn Duursma to seek help to prevent re-offending.
“If you come back to see me, things will go a lot worse,” he said.
Romanick also urged Duursma to seek counseling for her family, who the judge said also were hurt by Duursma’s actions.
“(It’s) just not you that’s being punished today,” Romanick said.
The judge ordered Duursma to be taken into custody immediately after her sentencing. She will serve her 60-day sentence at Burleigh County Detention Center and will be eligible for work release if the Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department approves it.
As a final condition of her probation, Duursma is not to contact the victim or approach within 50 yards of him for the entire five-year period.
(Reach Andrew Sheeler at 701-250-8225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)