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YOUNGSTOWN — Phil Atsas, a Campbell physical education teacher, has sued the school district, its superintendent, two Campbell police officers and the city of Campbell in federal court over his 2019 arrest on theft charges.

A jury in Campbell Municipal Court later found Atsas not guilty of any wrongdoing.

Attorney Scott Essad of Boardman filed the suit recently in U.S. District Court, seeking damages of $475,000. Judge Sara Lioi in Akron is assigned to hear the case.

It names as defendants Campbell schools Superintendent Matthew Bowen, the Campbell City School District Board of Education, Campbell police officer Ryan Young, police Lt. Kevin Sferra and the city.

The Campbell Police Department charged Atsas with six felony counts of theft in office and six misdemeanor counts of theft by deception in November 2019. The charges followed an investigation prompted by Bowen, who went to police Nov. 19, 2019, to report concerns that Atsas may have “possibly stolen money from the soccer program and kept the money for his personal gain,” according to a Campbell police report.

DISMISSALS

The felony charges were dismissed, and the the case went to trial on the misdemeanors in February 2020. But attorney John Zamoida Jr., special prosecutor, dismissed four of the six remaining charges before the jury began to deliberate. The jury found Atsas not guilty of the final two charges after deliberating 22 minutes, according to Vindicator files. Visiting Judge Robert Lavery of Alliance presided over the case. Zamoida is Struthers law director.

The suit argues that Atsas never should have been charged because the money he accepted was for children ages 7 and 8 to play soccer at an indoor facility in Liberty and had nothing to do with the school district. It alleges the police department did not have probable cause to make the arrest.

Messages left last week at Bowen’s office and with Campbell police Chief Patrick Kelly were not returned. Brian Macala, Campbell law director, said of the suit, “At this time, the city is denying any liability.”

When asked what probable cause the city found to arrest Atsas, Macala said he was not in a position to discuss it, especially since the city turned the matter over to its insurance carrier after the city got a “demand letter” from Essad six to nine months ago.

“They’ve investigated the matter, and we rely on our insurance company, as well as our legal counsel to make the appropriate decisions as this moves along,” Macala said. The legal counsel involved is Greg Beck of North Canton, who was retained by the insurance company.

ALLEGATIONS

Atsas has been coaching children in youth soccer at facilities such as the Tri County Sports Complex in Liberty for years, and the school district has “never been involved” in those teams, the suit states. Atsas collected money from the children’s parents and paid it to the facility to cover the cost of playing, the suit states.

When officer Young investigated Bowen’s allegations that it was improper for Atsas to collect money from children for soccer because of Atsas being a teacher and because the school district does not charge for its school-related soccer program, Young and his supervisor, Sferra, should have known that no crime was committed, the suit states.

The suit alleges the defendants deliberately deprived Atsas of his Constitutional rights, “including for his false and malicious prosecution and his arrest with no probable cause.” The suit also alleges defamation.

It adds, “There was nothing wrong, no way, no how, with parents paying for their 7- and 8-year-old children to play Little League soccer on a non-school team. Had, for instance, parents of high school players been asked to pay Atsas for them to play on the Campbell Memorial High School team, that would have been wrong. But no rational person would have ever confused the two,” the suit states.

During Atsas’ trial, Bowen testified that he agreed that the teams Atsas organized would not be school teams — except that Atsas is a school employee.

It is a violation of the Ohio Board of Education’s Licensure Code of Professional Conduct for Ohio Educators for a school employee to run any type of program in which the employee collects money from families without turning it in to the school district, Bowen testified.

The suit alleges the city violated Atsas’s Constitutional rights against illegal search and seizure, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution when Atsas was arrested “without probable cause.”

The school district’s reporting of concerns about Atsas to the police and Ohio Department of Education “were perverted in an attempt to accomplish an ulterior purpose,” which was to discipline or remove Atsas from his teaching position, the suit states.

If Atsas would have been convicted of fraud and theft from parents, his teaching license may have been revoked, the suit states.

The school district made earlier allegations against Atsas related to the high school soccer team Atsas had been coaching. That investigation led to Atsas agreeing last summer not to apply for any coaching positions with the school district until at least next January.

erunyan@tribtoday.com


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