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Newton teacher pleads not guilty to child porn charges

NEWTON — Inside the modest Waltham Street home he shared with his wife and two sons, middle school math teacher and high school coach Steven Chan collected thousands of sexually explicit videos and pictures from the Internet of underage girls, according to authorities.

On Friday, Chan, 57, was in Newton District Court holding his hands over his face. He pleaded not guilty to charges of possessing and disseminating child pornography as his family sat in the courtroom and watched his arraignment.

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“Mr. Chan admitted that he had observed child pornography on his computer, involving children as young as 4 years old,’’ said assistant prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.

School and city officials said they were shocked by the allegations. Chan, they said, was a dedicated teacher and gymnastics coach, with nothing in his personnel file or interactions with staff or students that hinted at darkness. He taught math at F.A. Day School and coached gymnastics at Newton North High School.

Steven Chan, a middle school teacher in Newton, shielded his face in Newton District Court during his arraignment on child pornography possession and dissemination charges. At right is his lawyer, Christopher Shannon.

Mark Garfinkel/Boston Herald, pool photo

Steven Chan, a middle school teacher in Newton, shielded his face in Newton District Court during his arraignment on child pornography possession and dissemination charges. At right is his lawyer, Christopher Shannon.

The arrest comes after David Ettlinger, a former teacher at the Underwood Elementary School in Newton, was sentenced early this year to 45 years in jail for his role in an online child pornography ring. Ettlinger was arrested in January 2012, the same month that 47-year-old Peter Buchanan, a city employee who had worked part time in the Newton Library’s audio visual section, was arrested for possession and distribution of child pornography in an unrelated case.

“The allegations that have been made against Steven Chan are serious and they’re troubling,” said Mayor Setti Warren. “We here in our community, and certainly I, feel very strongly that if those allegations turn out to be true, he should be prosecuted to the extent the law allows.

School starts on Tuesday, and Superintendent David Fleishman said a citywide meeting will be held that night at F.A. Day School with law enforcement and mental health professionals present so residents can ask questions and share concerns. A similar meeting was held in the wake of Ettlinger’s arrest.

Fleishman described both cases as inexplicable.

“The arrest of Steven Chan is shocking for the Newton Public Schools. It is even more shocking in light of the fact that we had another teacher arrested for child pornography charges just 18 months ago,” said Fleishman.

Chan was placed on paid administrative leave, Fleishman said, and will soon receive an intent-to-dismiss letter.

“We are going to act very swiftly given the seriousness of the charges,” he said.

Counselors will be available at all Newton schools Tuesday.

Chan’s salary for the coming school year is $84,113, according to Heather Richards, the district’s human relations director. He started as a teacher at Day in 1990, and then taught for a few years at Bigelow Middle School before returning to the school permanently in 1996, she said. He also spent a year as a substitute teacher in 1989-90 at different Newton schools.

Chan’s attorney, Christopher Shannon said his client has no criminal record and there are “zero suggestions any images found in his home were locally produced.”

Shannon said his client downloaded from a “peer-to-peer” file sharing network that has the potential to surreptitiously pass to users material other than which they intended to receive, and then to automatically disseminate those files without any action by the user.

But Fitzgerald argued that Chan knowingly downloaded child pornography.

“He’s a very sophisticated user . . . knew very well he was disseminating the images,” Fitzgerald told judge Antoinette Leoney.

Fitzgerald said investigators have not yet evaluated all of the material, but have not found any evidence that Chan recorded anything or took photos or that any Newton student was involved. He said additional charges could come if evidence warrants.

Chan’s arrest comes as the result of a summerlong undercover investigation by State Police assigned to an Internet crimes task force, prosecutors said. On Thursday at 4:20 p.m., after an Internet address led authorities to Chan’s home office, police said they found numerous DVDs, hard drives, VHS tapes, and computers containing sexually explicit images of girls under the age of 18.

Casey MacKenzie, who has worked at the middle school for 13 years, decided to attend the arraignment.

“I’m in shock, I don’t know what to say, it’s really upsetting me,” she said.

“I knew him, he was a wonderful person, no sign of any of this with him,” she said of Chan. “I’m disgusted and shocked and want to cry.”

School officials did a routine check on Chan for any evidence of a criminal record in April 2011, Fleishman said, and he was due for another in April 2014. After Ettlinger’s arrest, he said, the district tightened its hiring practices, doing more in-depth background and reference checks. The district will review its practices, he said, to see if they missed anything in Chan’s background.

“Let me be clear, the hardest cases that we deal with [are] when you have individuals like Mr. Chan who have no record, and no complaints that were even similar in nature to this,” he said. “That’s why this is so hard to explain, and so shocking to administrators, teachers, parents.”

Police Chief Howard Mintz said there was “no evidence . . . whatsoever” to indicate that Chan’s alleged crimes had any relationship to Ettlinger’s.

Chan, who was ordered held on $35,000 cash bail, was scheduled to return to court on Oct. 8 for a pretrial hearing.

Douglas Friedberg, a junior at Newton North High School who had Chan as a teacher in sixth grade, said the allegations come as a “total shock.” Chan was his homeroom teacher during the 2008 school year.

“That was the last thing I expected of him,’’ said the 17-year-old. “He looked like he enjoyed teaching, never gave any kids weird looks or anything like that. I’m sad, he was such a great guy, one of my favorite teachers, made class interesting and fun.”

Brian Ballou can be reached at bballou@globe.com. or Follow him on Twitter at globeballou. Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com.
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