A former West High teacher and coach accused of sexually exploiting children and distributing child pornography by computer denied charges in U.S. District Court in Billings on Tuesday.
Scott James Nichols, 42, pleaded not guilty to a 23-count indictment during an appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Carolyn Ostby.
The indictment charges Nichols with two counts of sexual exploitation of children, two counts of attempted sexual exploitation, 16 counts of distribution of child porn and three counts of possessing child porn.
The sexual exploitation charges allege Nichols coerced or attempted to coerce four minor girls to engage in sexually explicit conduct in December 2012 and January 2013 for recording and distribution. The girls ranged in age from about 13 to 16.
The indictment also alleges Nichols distributed child porn 16 times using a computer and possessed the material on computers.
Nichols' attorney, Jay Lansing of Billings, who is retained, declined to comment on Wednesday.
Nichols was let go from School District 2 in May 2013 after law enforcement officers informed district officials that Nichols was being investigated for inappropriate use of computers and the Internet.
"I would say we obviously made the right call when we didn't renew his certificate. I'm just glad we were on it," said Superintendent Terry Bouck on Wednesday.
"I remain outraged about what I have learned about the conduct that led to Scott Nichols' indictment," Bouck said in a statement. "I compliment our local police department and the Montana Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force for their work on this matter and for informing me about the investigation on May 15, 2013," he continued.
"The moment I heard about the investigation, Mr. Nichols was placed on administrative leave and removed from schools. The same day I recommended to the board that his employment with the district be ended," Bouck said.
The superintendent also notified the Montana Office of Public Instruction.
"The safety and security of our students are my top priority. I join with my fellow educators in condemning this conduct in the strongest possible terms and redoubling our efforts to make sure our children are safe," Bouck said.
Nichols had been at West High for less than a year and had come highly recommended by his colleagues in Livingston. He also passed a background check, which is a standard requirement for all prospective SD2 employees.
Nichols spent most of his career in the Livingston School District, where he coached and taught for 15 years.
Nichols taught physical education and coached the West High Lady Bears basketball team. He began employment with SD2 on Aug. 20, 2012, and was let go on May 21, 2013.
District officials were informed of the investigation on May 15, 2013, and Nichols, a non-tenured teacher, was placed on paid leave the same day, said Jeana Lervick, the district's executive director of human resources.
The superintendent recommended to the board that Nichols' contract not be renewed, and the board followed that recommendation on May 21.
If convicted, Nichols faces a mandatory minimum 15 to 30 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on the exploitation charges.
Ostby said she would release Nichols on conditions, including electronic monitoring, pending trial when the monitoring system had been set up. Nichols remained in the Yellowstone County jail as of Wednesday afternoon.
The case will be heard by U.S. District Judge Susan Watters.