A former Westhampton Beach Middle School gym teacher who admitted to filming girls while they changed clothes in the school locker room last winter was sentenced to five years of probation on Wednesday morning, despite prosecutors’ and victims’ request that he receive jail time.
Thomas Sheppard, 28, of Speonk also will be required to register as a Level 1 sex offender for the next 20 years as part of the sentence Judge Barbara Kahn handed down in Suffolk County Criminal Court in Riverside, and will receive treatment as part of his probation.
Sex offenders are ranked on a scale of 1 to 3 by the court, based on the likelihood of committing a similar crime again. Prosecutors recommended that Mr. Sheppard register as a Level 1 offender, which means there is a low risk of re-offense.
In October, Mr. Sheppard pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree unlawful surveillance and seven misdemeanor counts of endangering the welfare of a child—one for each of his victims who were either 13 or 14 years old at the time. He also submitted his resignation as an employee of the Westhampton Beach School District.
Prior to the sentencing, several of the victims’ family members and one of the victims addressed the court and asked Judge Kahn to incarcerate Mr. Sheppard. One mother stated that her daughter vomited every night for four weeks and lost sleep due the anxiety the incident caused.
Relatives of the victims have stated in the past that the girls were targeted by other students and community members, some of whom accused the girls of lying about the incident in order to get the popular teacher in trouble.
“You are a disgrace to society, and you should be ashamed of yourself,” one of Mr. Sheppard’s young victims told him.
“He violated my trust and the trust of the entire community,” a mother of one of the victims said from a podium in the front of the courtroom.
Mr. Sheppard, who was dressed in a navy blue suit, turned to face those sitting in the audience and said he was “deeply sorry” for his actions. He added that it was never his intention to hurt anyone.
“My hope is that the bravery that [the victims] showed today and throughout this situation will serve them well in the future, and I want nothing but the best for all the individuals involved,” Mr. Sheppard said.
“I make no excuses for what has happened,” he continued. “I’ve tried to face this the best I can, and that’s the best I can do. Hopefully, you will accept my apology at some point.”
James Chalifoux, deputy bureau chief of Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota’s Major Crime Bureau and lead prosecutor in the case, said Mr. Sheppard told probation officers that he was “sexually excited” upon setting up the phone to record the girls and provided no other explanation for his actions.
Mr. Chalifoux also recommended the maximum sentence allowed, between 16 months and four years in prison.
Judge Kahn said Mr. Chalifoux’s recommendation appeared to be focused on retribution. She said a prison sentence would not better protect the public, nor deter Mr. Sheppard from future misconduct, because it would not require the treatment or intensive supervision that probation demands.
Peter Brill, Mr. Sheppard’s attorney, said the former gym teacher regrets his actions and the harm he has caused for his victims and their families. “No one may ever believe that, whether I say it or he says it,” Mr. Brill said.
Outside the courtroom prior to sentencing, Mr. Brill explained that, under the terms of his client’s probation, he must seek permission before leaving Suffolk County. He said could receive permission to do so if he lands a job outside of the county, but that it would be difficult for Mr. Sheppard to move until he completes his probation.
“He let a lot of people down with one stupid act,” Mr. Brill added.
Officials with the Suffolk County district attorney’s office said Mr. Sheppard intentionally placed his cellphone in the girls locker room at the middle school, with its video function turned on, in order to record the girls while they changed on February 26. State Police arrested him three weeks later following an investigation.
Mr. Sheppard was immediately suspended from his teaching position with pay until he submitted his resignation to the Westhampton Beach Board of Education in October, prior to pleading guilty to the charges.