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Frank v. Dep’t of Children & Families, 37 A.3d 834 (Conn. App. Ct. 2012).
A parent contacted his child’s school principal to report that the child was uncomfortable with nicknames the child’s teacher was using, including “cheeks” and “fish out of water.” The parent also reported concerns about the teacher pinching his child’s cheeks. The principal asked the teacher to have less contact with the child, stop being playful, using nicknames, and pinching the child’s cheeks.
A month later, the principal checked in with the mother and she indicated the conduct had stopped. Shortly thereafter the child received a lower grade than usual and the mother complained to the school alleging the grade was lowered due to retaliation.
After several meetings with school staff, the mother filed a police report regarding the teacher’s conduct. The police discussed the allegations with the teacher and principal but declined to investigate further.
The school conducted an independent investigation, which included questioning other students about the teacher’s conduct. As a result, the school suspended the teacher for a week, noting that although the other students thought his nicknames and other actions were harmless, he went too far sometimes.
Two complaints to the child welfare agency were made during this time by the mother, but the agency took no action. The agency investigated a third time and substantiated emotional abuse. The Connecticut Court of Appeals noted that the third allegation was investigated on the same date that an article ran in the local paper about the case. The emotional abuse finding was upheld by the agency’s administrative office and on appeal.
On appeal to the Court of Appeals, the teacher alleged the statute was unconstitutionally vague because it did not make it clear that horseplay in the form of nicknames and cheek pinching constituted emotional abuse.
He argued the statute and agency’s policy interpreting it must allow normal student-teacher interaction including “criticism, correction, punishment, encouragement, bonding and playfulness.” Further, he alleged the statute and policy do not inform teachers that joking behavior that unintentionally upsets a student would constitute abuse.
The Connecticut Court of Appeals held the hearing officer improperly used a subjective standard, finding essentially that the joking was harmful to the child in question given his past history of trauma. Importantly, the teacher was not aware of the child’s vulnerability until after the mother complained, and he stopped the behavior after he learned of it.
The evidence was also insufficient to find his behavior was abusive. The other students reported that he joked with many of the students, the joking was harmless, and none of the others had complained.
The Connecticut Court of Appeals reversed the trial court order. Because the teacher’s actions were not clearly inappropriate in the eyes of the school or other students, he could not have been on notice that they could constitute emotional abuse. A statute can not be so vague that a person of common intelligence must guess at its meaning.