May 13, 2011
Courts agree teacher used excessive force
By ANDREW BERGH
Special to the Journal
Once upon a time, teachers used corporal punishment
to maintain discipline in public schools.
This flowed from the fact that while children were in school, teachers
were expected to act as substitute parents, with all the normal forms of
parental discipline available to them. As a consequence, students were
often punished with the birch, cane, paddle or strap — ouch! — if they
did something wrong.
Nowadays, though, corporal punishment on campus is expressly banned by
statute in most states, including Washington. This doesn't mean force
can never be used on a child, as another law in Washington allows
“physical discipline” by a parent or teacher as long as it is
“reasonable and moderate” and administered for purposes of “restraining
or correcting” the child.
But instances of physical force in the classroom are becoming rare.
For one thing, in our ever litigious society, teachers must be wary of
civil lawsuits brought by disgruntled parents who feel their children
were physically abused. And as shown by State v. Jarvis, teachers in the
Evergreen State may even face criminal prosecution if they cross the
line by using excessive force.
Karen Jarvis was a special education teacher at an intermediate school
in Pierce County.
On Jan. 10, 2008, the school held a so-called “lock-down drill.” (If
you're drawing a blank, a lock-down drill tests preparedness in the
event of an intruder or criminal act. All students and instructors must
report to a designated room, lock all doors and windows, and remain
still until a “clear signal” has been issued.)
Although there were no written rules, the established procedure for
Jarvis's class required all students and teachers to wait inside a
bathroom during the drill. C.B., a special education student with Down
syndrome and limited verbal communication skills, instead hid under his
desk because he mistakenly thought an earthquake drill was taking place.
(In lieu of C.B.'s real name, court records only use his initials.)
After trying unsuccessfully to coax C.B. out from under the desk, a
teacher's aide decided the best course of action was to stay with him in
But Jarvis disagreed.
Instead, the teacher approached C.B. and yelled at him to come out from
under the desk. When the youth refused, Jarvis threw the desk off of him
and then proceeded to drag C.B. by his wrist and ankle approximately 25
feet across the floor to the bathroom. All the while, C.B. was screaming
hysterically and trying to resist. And when he grabbed the jamb of the
bathroom door, Jarvis jerked C.B. free and swung him into the bathroom,
where he slid seven or eight feet across the tile floor.
Sound like unreasonable force to you? The local prosecutor sure thought
so, as Jarvis soon faced a fourth degree assault charge in Pierce County
District Court. (The fact that it was fourth degree assault, which is
the lowest form of assault, suggests that C.B. wasn't seriously hurt.)
It's unclear whether Jarvis was offered any plea bargain or even
amenable to one.
What's known, however, is that a Pierce County jury found her guilty as
charged in September 2008. After a Superior Court judge affirmed her
conviction, Jarvis convinced a Washington appeals court to review her
case. But it was ultimately all for naught, as the appeals court
recently rejected all of her arguments.
Under Washington's assault statute, fourth degree assault includes a
“harmful or offensive touching” with criminal intent. According to
Jarvis, this statute is unconstitutionally vague because it didn't give
her “fair warning” as to what conduct was prohibited.
But this argument was DOA.
When challenging a statute's constitutionality on vagueness grounds,
said the court, the defendant must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that
“ordinary people cannot understand what is prohibited.” That wasn't the
case here, the court ruled, because an ordinary person would understand
that Jarvis's conduct — i.e., dragging a child 25 feet by the wrist and
ankle as the child struggled hysterically, jerking him free from a door
jamb, and then slinging him seven or eight feet across a bathroom floor
— amounted to a harmful or offensive touching.
Jarvis also argued that there was insufficient evidence of any “criminal
intent” on her part. According to her, this required some showing of
malice or ill will.
But the appeals court again didn't buy it.
The only intent required for assault, said the court, is the intent to
make physical contact with the victim, not any intent that the contact
be malicious. Since it was “uncontroverted” that Jarvis had intended to
drag C.B., the court held there was ample evidence of intent.
Having whiffed at three different court levels, it looks like Jarvis's
day of reckoning has finally come.
While I suspect her teaching career may be threatened, the smart money
says she won't receive any corporal punishment.
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