|By SARA MITCHELL
Donna L. Sanders, who spent the last 25 years of her life working as a public school educator, was sentenced Thursday in Union County Circuit Court to a total of 50 years in the Arkansas Department of Correction.
Standing next to her attorney, David Graham, Sanders pled guilty before Circuit Judge Larry Chandler to five felony counts of permitting abuse of a child. Four of the counts occurred in Union County and one in Columbia County.
Thirteenth Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Robin Carroll told Chandler that he was amazed at the breach of trust that had manifested due to Sanders’ actions. “I hope to never see a breach of trust of this magnitude ever again in my life,” he said.
The crimes committed by Sanders involved two juvenile girls, two juvenile boys, and one adult male.
The girls were transported from Columbia County to Union County for the purpose of taking part in sexual activities with a 16-year-old male, and also 21-year-old Dustin Rowland, who was charged with rape. The minors were dropped off at different hotels in El Dorado and left overnight, and were provided with alcohol by Sanders. One of the juvenile girls met Rowland via Facebook on the Internet.
On another occasion, Sanders took the minors to a deer camp in Columbia County and left them there for a couple of hours before returning. She also provided alcohol on that trip.
Earlier reports stated that Sanders provided the minors with alcohol and would drive them around, allowing them to have sex in the back seat of her car.
Graham told Chandler that Sanders was not aware of the children having sex in the back seat of the car, but admitted that she knew they had sex at the deer camp.
Testimony was heard from relatives of the children involved in the abuse.
From the witness stand, the mother of a 13-year-old female victim told Chandler that Sanders’ actions had a major impact on her daughter’s life and on their relationship. “She’s angry and doesn’t exactly know why she’s angry,” the mother said, adding that she had trusted Sanders to take care of her daughter when they went to ball games. “And everytime we read about it in the paper we are violated again.”
The mother said that her daughter had been used and manipulated. “I am glad my daughter is not dead. She (Sanders) left them over here with boys they didn’t even know.”
The mother of another victim, a 15-year-old boy, told Chandler that her son has become angry since the events and didn’t have any friends. “He doesn’t want to do anything anymore except sit in his room. His grades have gone down.” The mother also stated that her son now thinks that “adults are stupid.” She said that her son feels as though he doesn’t have to respect adults anymore, “and he doesn’t,” she added.
The grandmother of the 15-year-old boy said that her grandson used to be compassionate and sincere, but has since had anger problems. “Donna knew he was having problems,” the grandmother said. “She would bring him to my office and tell me he was having problems. I thought she was a good Christian woman.”
When asked what impact the crimes had on her personally, the grandmother replied, “You lose faith in people.”
Sanders said that she was embarrassed, ashamed, and very sorry. “I don’t know what my thinking was,” she said. She also stated that she provided the minors with vodka and beer.
When asked about a motive for her actions, Sanders replied that she didn’t know of one. She said she did not drink alcohol with the juveniles or stay and watch. She said she worried about them when she had left them overnight in the motel and called one of the juveniles to check on them.
Sanders told Chandler that in 1976, at age 15, she had been brutally raped. She had taken a book to her father, who was working at Southern Arkansas University, and was abducted by two men who both got in her stationwagon and drove off. “I had no idea where we were going. They threatened to cut off my head with a knife,” she said.
The men took turns raping her, Sanders said. “One would drive and the other would rape me in the back seat and then they would swap places.”
Eventually the car ran out of gas and Sanders was spotted by deer hunters. Her parents and emergency personnel were then notified.
Sanders said she did not seek counseling and was back in school after only missing one day. She said that she had since suffered depression and anorexia, dropping down to 89 pounds from her normal weight of 130.
Prosecutor Christy Carr asked Sanders what she thought the juveniles were going to do after she dropped them off at the deer camp. Sanders replied that she thought they might watch television. “Then why couldn’t they watch TV at your house?” Carr asked Sanders, who had no response.
“Isn’t it true that if you were not arrested, your behavior would have continued?” Carr asked.
Terry Sanders, husband of Donna Sanders, testified that he had no idea of what had been going on. “How do you fit anything like this in your head?” he asked.
Donna Sanders has suffered some post partum depression after the birth of their eldest child, her husband said, adding that she had mentioned suicide.
Terry Sanders said he knew about the rape when they married. “I married her because I loved her. The other stuff didn’t matter.” He said that the rape was not discussed in detail between them and he didn’t know the details until he read a doctor’s report after his wife had been arrested and was in therapy.
“I want to know why,” Terry Sanders said. “I have a different answer every day of the week and every moment of the day. I hate that. I like answers.”
Dr. Richard Schmid, psychologist and professor of psychology at Henderson State University, said that he thought Donna Sanders was suffering from “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - Delayed Onset.” He explained that when people go through a life-threatening situation with no escape, some of them can have issues that will come up decades later.
He said that he noticed during their first session that Sanders’ emotions didn’t seem to “fit the occasion at the time.”
Schmid said that as a human being, Sanders had the right to be provided with mental health treatment. “If she had came in to see me two years ago, we wouldn’t be here now,” he said. “If I had known her history two years ago, I could have told her something was going to happen.”
Schmid said that Sanders’ case was “very unusual and quite interesting.”
Several people from Central Baptist Church in Magnolia were present in support of Sanders. Also, several co-workers of Sanders testified that they were shocked when they heard about her arrest because it was out of character for her.
Sanders will be eligible for parole after spending 1/6 of her sentence. She was also given five years suspended imposition of sentence and will be given credit for pre-trial incarceration.