Ed Law Briefly: Teacher Who Verbally Insults Young Student Can Be Listed on a Statewide Child Abuse Registry

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RCEd Commentary

Background: The teacher-student relationship had clearly broken down. Nicholas Frank, an elementary school teacher in New Haven, Connecticut, was accused of verbally abusing of one his students. When the youngster, referred to as “K” in the decision, asked one question too many, Frank pinched his cheeks as a punishment.  The 5th- and 6th-grade instructor also ridiculed K’s weight calling him derogatory names like “birthing mother” and “pregnant.”

K’s mother met with the school principal to report the teacher’s belittling behavior. She explained how the cheek-pinching hurt, how K had trouble sleeping and suffered bedwetting due to anxiety, and how he did not want to go to school. 

The principal ordered Frank to quit treating K badly, and asked the school district’s personnel director to investigate the allegations. The name-calling and cheek-pinching was confirmed and Frank was suspended for eight days without pay. One month earlier, Frank had received a written warning. The reprimand explained that he called a child a “liar” when the student complained that Frank had called him fat during a boot camp exercise.

Frank’s emotional mistreatment of K ultimately landed him on a state central registry for child abuse and neglect. Frank challenged that classification, saying it was inaccurate to put him in the same category as those who sexually or physically harm children.

The courts were asked to settle the question.

Issue: Can a classroom teacher be placed on a state child abuse registry for verbal barbs aimed at a student during school?

Legal Principles: The court must wrestle with the question of whether this is an unfair expansion of the definition of “abuse” and whether Frank’s behavior – only verbal in nature – justifies being listed on a registry with wrongdoers who have done far worse. 

Outcome: The Connecticut Supreme Court did not hesitate in its conclusion. “… [W]e readily find that the plaintiff had fair notice that his conduct could qualify as emotional abuse. The plaintiff, as K’s teacher, was placed into a unique position to have an impact on K’s life.”

The court credited the hearing officer with ferreting out the facts, saying, ‘‘[t]he record . . . supports a finding that the [plaintiff] had previously been advised by school administrators that it was inappropriate to call students names. The [plaintiff] had received verbal warnings and at least one written warning. In addition, as a teacher and an individual educated regarding child development issues, the [plaintiff] should have the knowledge and resources to understand the implications of failing to provide appropriate care to children.”

Indeed, the opinion reads as a bit indignant. “It should be obvious to anyone, let alone a professional educator, that this type of behavior—the targeting of a particular student’s physical characteristics in a demeaning and hurtful way—would readily fall within the terms ‘‘degrading’’ or ‘‘victimizing”…” and therefore are enough to qualify for the child abuse registry.

Lessons for Principals and Teachers:

  • Do educators in your district know what is happening in the classroom between students and teachers?
  • Is verbal abuse – bullying by adults toward children – something that is taken seriously and punished accordingly?
  • What mechanisms do you have in place to hear complaints from students and parents about inappropriate faculty behavior in class?
  • What are the contours of your state child abuse registry, and can teachers’ words at school be the cause for landing someone on the statewide list?

Connecticut Supreme Court:
Nicholas Frank v. Department of Children and Families, SC-18980 (July 8, 2014).

Note: This information is not intended as legal advice. Federal and other court decisions can differ depending on what region of the country you live in. State laws also weigh in on certain issues. All cases are for educational purposes only, and meant to demonstrate how courts or administrative agencies have acted in specific instances as well as to provide information that can bolster the overall legal literacy of teachers and administrators. Local school attorneys can provide more detail about local law.

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