In a decision to be released next week, the Connecticut Appellate Court sided with a sixth grade teacher who had been officially labeled an abuser by an investigator Department of Children and Families.
Here’s the case in a nutshell:
- In the fall of 2008, the parent of a sixth grade student, identified in the decision simply as “K” complained to school administrators that K’s teacher, Nicholas Frank, had pinched K’s cheeks and called K names like “cheeks” and “fish out of water”.
- The following spring, K’s parent complained that she suspected K’s teacher had lowered K’s grades as retaliation for her earlier charges of bullying.
- After a brief police investigation and two internal investigations, the Department of Children and Families was asked to investigate the allegations three separate times. The Department twice declined to investigate and finally agreed on the same day The New Haven Register ran a story about the dispute.
- The school system had meanwhile conducted its own hearing as a result of which the teacher was suspended for 8 business days for “[joking] with students and at times identifying them by nicknames” The teacher was also required to participate in mandatory training and to refrain from similar conduct in the future.
- DCF then held a hearing after which it was determined that Frank’s behavior had been abusive. The Department’s hearing officer ordered that Frank’s name be placed on a central registry of child abusers.
- Frank appealed to the Connecticut Superior Court which affirmed the decision of the DCF hearing officer.
- An appeal followed which resulted in this week’s decision. In it, the Appellate Court, in a unanimous decision reversed the decision of the trial court and held that Connecticut’s definition of child abuse, as applied to Frank’s behavior was unconstitutionally vague. The court also specifically declined to consider the case under Connecticut’s anti-bullying statute noting that the legislation was “not meant to regulate teacher-student bullying.”
We believe that this case raises some very important questions:
- First, is there a difference between physical bullying and “horseplay” ?
- Is there a meaningful difference between name-calling and nickname-calling where the nickname is imposed rather than chosen?
- Assuming that Frank’s behavior did constitute bullying that did not rise to the level of abuse, does Connecticut’s current legislative scheme fail to address all but the most egregious teacher-student bullying?
- What could the Department of Children and Families have done differently in this case?
Please let us know what you think.