COA: teacher within rights in striking student

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2008
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Relying on caselaw from the 19th century, the Indiana Court of Appeals upheld a trial court's decision to dismiss a battery charge against a teacher for striking a student in gym class.

Judges Patricia Riley and Melissa May agreed with the trial court in State of Indiana v. Paula J. Fettig, No. 49A02-0709-CR-807, that gym teacher Fettig was protected from prosecution because state statute gives authority to school personnel to discipline students. Citing Indiana Code Sections 20-33-8-8(b) and 20-33-8-9, Judge Riley wrote these sections state that teachers "may take any action that is reasonably necessary to carry out or to prevent an interference with an educational function that the individual supervises."

Fettig worked as a high school gym teacher in Beech Grove. During a class, a student, T.C., injured herself. T.C.'s friend, S.D., checked on T.C. Fettig said S.D. began yelling at other students for mocking T.C. and used profanity. She described the situation as getting out of hand and in an effort to regain control of the class, Fettig said S.D.'s name repeatedly and when S.D. continued to ignore Fettig, the teacher turned S.D.'s chin toward her and told her to get up and go play.

The student witnesses' accounts varied; one heard a slap but did not see Fettig strike S.D. Another saw Fettig strike S.D. with an open palm on the left side of her face. S.D. testified Fettig slapped her, which stung, and told her to go play.

The state filed an information charging Fettig with battery as a Class A misdemeanor. In response, Fettig filed a motion to dismiss the charge, which the trial court granted.

The state appealed, arguing that although teachers are allowed to use reasonable corporate punishment when disciplining students, whether Fettig's actions were corporal punishment is a question of fact.

Judge Riley wrote that trial courts have a certain level of discretion to determine factual issues and dismiss informations. The trial court found Fettig didn't use a weapon, closed fist, repeated blows, or verbal abuse on S.D., just an open hand touching the student's face, which caused her face to sting.

The majority agreed with the trial court's findings and even cited three cases to support their decision - Vanvactor v. State, 113 Ind. 276, 15 N.E. 341, 342 (Ind. 1888); Danenhoffer v. State, 69 Ind. 295, 1879 WL 5751 (Ind. 1879); and Marlsbary v. State, 10 Ind.App. 21, 37 N.E. 558 (Ind. Ct. App. 1894).

In these cases, teachers were charged with assault and battery for whipping students, but the state's Supreme Court and Court of Appeals overturned the trial court decisions, finding the evidence didn't support the convictions.

Judge Riley notes these three cases demonstrate the ability of the judiciary to determine when a teacher has acted within the bounds of his or her authority to discipline a student.

"Considering the facts here - no weapons, no closed fist, no repeated blows, no verbal abuse, and the only alleged injury being a stinging sensation - in context with the right of teachers to be free from criminal prosecution for physical punishment that is neither cruel nor excessive, we conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by dismissing the information charging Fettig with battery," she wrote.

In his dissent, Judge James Kirsch wrote that the three cases cited in the majority opinion all come from the 19th century and times have changed since then regarding student discipline. Many countries and states - not Indiana - ban corporal punishment in schools. The judge wrote he has serious doubts that today's Supreme Court would uphold the whipping in Vanvactor, which left marks on a student's legs, or the whipping administered by a school superintendent for not delivering a note, as is the case in Danenhoffer.

"The State should have its day in court. I believe the trial court erred in dismissing the charge, and, accordingly, I respectfully dissent," he wrote.

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