A former teacher at a Department of Defense elementary school in Germany has been sentenced to life in prison for sexually abusing four of his students who were between 6 and 8 years old at the time, according to the Department of Justice.

Stefan Zappey, 57, formerly of Stuttgart, Germany, was sentenced May 2 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. He had taught first through third grade at Alexander M. Patch Elementary on Patch Barracks in Stuttgart from 2001 to 2021 for the Department of Defense Education Activity.

The incidents at trial happened between 2006 and 2010. During that time, he was named teacher of the year for his school district in 2007, according to court documents. Zappey continued to teach at the school for another 11 years. He was arrested in July, 2021, while he and his wife were in the United States for a month during the summer.

The jury convicted Zappey Jan. 18 of four counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child and four counts of abusive sexual contact. He faced a mandatory minimum penalty of 30 years in prison. The government asked for a life sentence.

“Zappey abused a position of trust as an elementary school teacher and sexually abused multiple students,” said Ryan K. Buchanan, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, in an announcement of the sentence. “His crimes were horrific, and the community is safer now that he no longer has access to children.”

According to the Justice Department, Army criminal investigators were notified in 2020 that one of Zappey’s former students reported that he touched her inappropriately under her clothing between 2009 and 2010. Other students and faculty members at Patch Elementary School also told investigators that Zappey had frequently hugged students, had them sit on his lap, and touched their backs and stomachs under their clothes, according to Justice officials. Four former students said that Zappey had directly touched their genitals, according to court documents.

Army Criminal Investigation Division Europe field office and the FBI investigated the case.

According to the government’s sentencing memorandum, a Patch Elementary School teacher returned to the United States on summer vacation in 2020 and saw one of the former Patch students at a mutual friend’s home. While reminiscing about her time in elementary school, the former student said she hated Zappey and said he had touched her inappropriately. The teacher reported this to Army criminal investigators, who began an investigation that led to the criminal charges.

The court documents also outlined that Patch administrators had received other complaints about Zappey. One child reported he had touched her under her clothes in 2009, when she was about 6 years old. “The child reported the touching to her parents, who then reported the touching to Patch Elementary administrators and asked that their child be transferred to a different class,” the document stated. “Patch administrators did not take any disciplinary or administrative action against Zappey after this report.”

Zappey’s coworkers also observed him “touching students in inappropriate ways,” according to the documents. The coworkers “reported this concerning behavior to Patch administrators multiple times. As before, Patch Elementary did not take any disciplinary or administrative action against defendant after these reports.”

As court documents noted, “Outwardly, defendant was a friendly, outgoing and encouraging teacher who was well-liked by his students, their parents and his fellow faculty members.”

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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