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Court Rules Horror Film Wasn’t OK for School

(CN) — A substitute teacher who showed a movie called "The ABCs of Death" to her classes was properly convicted of disseminating matter harmful to juveniles, the Ohio Court of Appeals ruled.

Sheila Kearns was a permanent substitute teacher at East High School in Columbus, and she covered five Spanish classes on April 11, 2013.

She showed each class a portion of "The ABCs of Death," a compilation of 26 short films by directors around the world. Each film was about death and corresponded to a word beginning with each letter of the alphabet.

In addition to death, the films also depicted graphic violence, vaginal and anal sex, animal cruelty, prostitution, masturbation, rape and child molestation.

The students were "excited and appalled" by what they had seen, court records show, and assistant principal Carl Chamberlain was alerted.

When he arrived in class, he saw a scene with a surfboard and an implied drowning. Kearns fast-forwarded through several scenes, but when she pressed play, Chamberlain saw "(bare) female breasts showing on the screen," according to Thursday's Ohio Court of Appeals ruling.

Chamberlain took the DVD and watched some of it with the school safety and security specialist, but he said a "simulation of child rape" was where he "had to stop."

The police were alerted, and Kearns admitted to Chamberlain that she had shown the entire movie, stopping it at the end of a class before restarting it for the next class.

At trial, a detective testified that Kearns had told him she showed the movie because it contained Spanish subtitles and addressed the Spanish alphabet.

Kearns was convicted of four counts of disseminating matter harmful to juveniles. She was acquitted on one count corresponding to the first class of the day.

She was sentenced to 90 days in Franklin County Corrections Center and three years of community control. Violation of community control would result in four consecutive prison terms of eight months each.

Kearns appealed, but the Tenth District Ohio Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction Thursday.

Presiding Judge Julia L. Dorrian explained that the state proved the movie was obscene, which elevated the crime to a felony.

"Having viewed the movie, in particular vignette L, as well as vignette Z, we find that the element of patently offensive sexual conduct was met," she wrote for the majority of a three-judge panel. "The sexual conduct depicted in the movie was hardcore."

In addition, Dorrian noted that movie appealed to a prurient interest.

"'Prurient' interest is not the same as a candid, normal, or healthy interest in sex, rather it is a 'shameful or morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion which goes substantially beyond customary limits of candor in description or representation of such matters, " the judge stated.

Dorrian agreed with the state that a reasonable person would find that the movie lacks serious "literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."

Kearns had argued that "The ABCs of Death" is a horror movie with artistic value that was shown at the Toronto Film Festival.

"There is nothing in the record outlining the criteria to premier at the Toronto Film Festival or supporting the notion that the Toronto Film Festival only premiers films with serious artistic value," Dorrian wrote.

Judge Susan Brown joined Dorrian in the majority.

Judge Gary Tyack wrote a dissenting opinion. He noted that Kearns was assigned as a permanent substitute despite the fact that she cannot speak Spanish.

He also stated that several vignettes did not include sexual content, like those depicting a man killing himself and a man fighting a dog.

"There is simply no proof any student saw the whole movie, although the prosecution tried to make Kearns criminally responsible for the whole content of the movie, not just the portions seen by some students," Tyack wrote.

He added that he found three of the 26 vignettes to be objectionable.

"The two students who testified did not seem to recall any of the three objectionable vignettes," he wrote. "The three objectionable vignettes would have been memorable."

State prosecutor Ron O'Brien told Courthouse News the appeals court "reached the right decision in affirming the conviction."

Kearns' attorney Geoffrey Oglesby did not respond Wednesday to an email request for comment.

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