By: Julia Deng
MIDLAND - Juan Leovardo Melendez, a former substitute teacher convicted of injuring fifth grade students, was sentenced Tuesday to two five-year periods of probation.
Jurors found him guilty of two counts of injury to a child, a third degree felony, the previous day, as well as one count of misdemeanor assault.
Melendez, 64, substituted for two years in the Midland Independent School District as a "retirement job," according to prosecutors. He had previously worked as an engineer.
The incidents that led to his arrest occurred at Sam Houston Elementary School on October 14, 15 and 16 in 2013.
Melendez was working in a fifth grade classroom regularly assigned to Christi Barnes, according to Midland County Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Lively, who prosecuted the case.
Seven MISD students testified against Melendez in court; Lively said "quite a few more" had voiced complaints about the substitute teacher.
"Several of the students came forward and two specifically indicated that the defendant had placed them in... either headlocks or chokeholds," she told NewsWest 9. "They demonstrated this for the jury by putting their arms and hands around the neck and squeezing. One of the children indicated this caused him pain and also impeded his ability to breathe."
Another incident involving a female student led Melendez to be charged with one count of indecency with a child.
"One of the students disclosed and testified at trial that the defendant pushed his elbow into her breast," said Lively.
Students reported feeling "scared" and "offended" in their testimony.
Lively said Midland County prosecutors wanted Melendez behind bars for 10 years, the maximum sentence.
However, the jury handed down a significantly lighter punishment - with no fines or prison time - on Tuesday.
"I really don't know why they didn't choose [the maximum sentence]," Lively told NewsWest 9. "We felt that a prison sentence was appropriate and a prison sentence was not appropriate. But I guess that's why you have a jury. It wasn't an easy decision for them or one they reached quickly. They are supposed to represent to conscience of the community."
Sam Houston parents did not appear to share the "conscience" of the jurors.
One mother, who requested anonymity, said she was "outraged" and "would definitely consider homeschooling."
Katie Chapman, whose two nephews attend Sam Houston, said it was "crazy" that Melendez was not behind bars.
"He should be blacklisted from being a teacher," she told NewsWest 9.
Melendez will not be allowed contact with children under 18 during probation.
However, he will not be listed in any official assault or predator registry and will be allowed to continue teaching following successful completion of his sentence.
"The court did not have restrictions [about future substitute teaching]," explained Lively. "That will be up to individual districts or employers."
If Melendez fails to complete his first five-year probation sentence, he faces two years in prison; if he fails to complete his second five years, he faces three years behind bars.