MORRIS – A ruling is expected next week in the trial of a former Morris Community High School teacher charged with unlawful grooming and indecent solicitation of a child.
Steffen Balegno’s trial started Thursday and wrapped up Friday at the Grundy County Courthouse. Balegno, who turned 36 Friday, testified in his own defense before closing arguments were made by the Grundy County State’s Attorney’s Office and Balegno’s defense attorney, Raymond Wigell.
Balegno is a former industrial arts teacher who was arrested in January 2012. The accuser, now 19 and in college, was a former student and 16 when the alleged incidents occurred. The Morris Daily Herald does not identify victims of alleged abuse.
Balegno, of Coal City, started at Morris High in August 2006. On Oct. 25, 2010, the student’s mother notified the school of inappropriate communications between her son and Balegno, which prompted an investigation by school administration and Morris police. Balegno was suspended in November 2012 and resigned a month later.
Balegno used his cellphone in an attempt to entice a child through texting, resulting in Balegno intending to commit criminal sexual abuse, according to the indictment.
While testifying, Balegno’s attorney went through numerous text messages with him to clarify why the educator sent texts he admitted were “inappropriate.”
The student testified Thursday that he started the texting relationship by asking Balegno for help with teammates on the baseball team. From that incident Balegno said he wanted to help the student learn to stick up for himself and say no.
When asked by his lawyer if it was his intention to offer the student money to perform oral sex on him, Balegno said no.
“I was trying to get him to open up and say no, and that it’s OK to say no because people are going to try and get you to do things, as shown here, whether you trust them or not, and you have to say no,” Balegno said.
Multiple teachers who worked with Balegno at Morris High also testified Friday. All stated they never witnessed him be inappropriate with a student and said he was a good and professional teacher who “went above and beyond.”
Most who testified said they also have texted with students, but not in mass amounts or during the middle of the night. When asked by the state if they considered it normal behavior to text and ask for a picture of the student’s sexual organs or about sex acts, they all said no.
In his closing statement, Grundy County Assistant State’s Attorney Peter Siena reiterated that the case was about boundaries between a student and teacher, and noted there is a large gap between the maturity levels and experiences.
“A 16-year-old boy is naturally scared by what was going on and how to handle that situation,” Siena said.
He argued Balegno broke the law by using his cellphone to entice the student through text messages to commit criminal sexual abuse, citing text messages from Balegno that offered the boy $500, $1,000 and $1,500 if he would be allowed to perform oral sex on the student. The student testified he responded to texts out of fear, but as the months went on he replied with “no” and “stop.”
Siena said Balegno was “testing the waters” when he sent texts calling the student “sweetheart” and discussing backrubs and kissing, when it eventually escalated to discussions of making a sex video and offering him money for sexual favors. He was not “teaching him a lesson” as Balegno testified.
“This continued from June through October. This was, ‘How far can I push him [until] he says no, how far can I push him [until] I get what I want,’ and what he wanted was to have sex with [the student],” Siena said.
The defense argued all of the state’s arguments are not proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
“What the state doesn’t talk about is presumption of innocence,” Wigell said. “The state doesn’t talk about proof beyond a reasonable doubt. They don’t talk about it because they don’t have it.”
Wigell said the state concentrated on about 580 text messages recovered from the student’s phone, but there are at least 5,000 more texts between the two the court did not see.
The context of the messages are key and without all of the texts, the court cannot know the right context, he said.
“[Balegno] admitted repeatedly the texting was inappropriate. ... I say it was inappropriate and incredibly poor judgment,” Wigell said. “If inappropriate and poor judgment are crimes, I would suggest we would all be in jail.”
Wigell reiterated the student initiated texts as well, and the inappropriate talk. He called this behavior simply “banter between males.”
The judge in the case, Robert Marsaglia, is expected to rule Friday. If convicted, Balegno could be sentenced to probation or up to three years in prison for the grooming charge and five years for the solicitation charge.
If found guilty of either count, he would have to register as a sex offender for 10 years, according to the state’s attorney’s office.