Former GFPS teacher charged for sending, possessing explicit images of minors

A former Great Falls Public Schools art teacher has been charged with six felony counts of sexual abuse of children.

A warrant was issued in late August for William James Harning in connection with an incident first reported in December 2021.

According to the charging documents filed in district court in Cascade County, on Dec. 14, 2021, the Great Falls High School principal told Det. Clint Houston, the school resource officer at the time, that Harning was sending inappropriate pictures to a 17-year-old student at the school. Harning’s face could be seen in the image, according to the charging documents.

Houston contacted Det. Scott Bambenek for assistance. Bambanek is the GFPD’s Internet Crimes Against Children detective.

On Dec. 14, 2021, the detectives contacted Harning in his classroom that was unoccupied during his prep period. He was using his cell phone when the detectives walked in and then set his phone on the table, according to court documents.

Harning agreed to go to Houston’s office to speak with him, but left his phone on the table  and Bambenek seized the phone for evidence. Harning chose not to make a statement and was released while the investigation continued, according to court documents.

After getting more information from the student, Bambenek got a search warrant for Harning’s phone.

“Due to a heavy backlog of devices, the phone could not be searched until May of 2023,” according to the court documents.

At that time Agent Brian Cassidy of the Montana Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation, provided the cell phone extraction to Bambenek, according to court documents.

Bambenek reviewed the data, which included numerous self-produced sexually explicit images of Harning and numerous sexually explicit images of children between the approximate ages of five and 18, according to the court documents.

In August 2023, Bambenek had a certified pediatric nurse practitioner review the images to ensure they were child sexual abuse material and she determined that they were sexually explicit images of children aged five to 16.

On Aug. 14, Bambenek requested the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to review 370 images recovered from Harning’s phone to identify any child victims. That review is ongoing, according to the charging documents.

According to the Cascade County Attorney’s Office, Harning was in Washington when the warrant was issued and is scheduled to appear in court on Sept. 19.

GFPS Superintendent Tom Moore told The Electric that upon receiving the initial report, Harning  was placed on administrative leave and he didn’t return to the district. Moore said that GFPS turned all information over to the Montana Office of Public Instruction for investigation and the eventual revocation of his teacher licensure in Montana.

Harning was also previously the education director at the Paris Gibson Museum of Art.

According to the warrant, Harning’s bond was set at $20,000.

The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office in Washington told The Electric that their deputies were notified on Sept. 12 by the Snohomish County Violent Offenders Task Force that they had Harning in custody.

He was arrested by the U.S. Marshal’s Service out of Seattle, which are part of the violent offenders task force, according to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.

Harning had an extraditable six counts of felony sexual abuse of children warrant out of Cascade County that was confirmed to be valid, according to WCSO.

WCSO deputies met the violent offenders task force at the jail and took custody of Harning.

Based upon the active fugitive warrant status out of Montana, probable cause existed to arrest Harning for fugitive from justice and he was booked into the Whatcom County Jail, according to WCSO.