The Knoxville News-Sentinel, September 19, 2000

Ex-teacher's defense bid not allowed
Assault on student alleged

By Randy Kenner, News-Sentinel staff writer

A Knox County judge rejected the argument Monday that a teacher accused of choking and threatening to kill a Cedar Bluff Middle School student is covered by a state law protecting teachers who use corporal punishment to discipline students.

Criminal Court Judge Mary Beth Leibowitz' ruling came after a sharply contested hearing on the motion asking that assault charges against former teacher Julia M. Ward be dismissed under Tennessee's "School Discipline Act."

Ward is charged in connection with a Dec. 18, 1998, incident in which she allegedly attacked then-13-year-old James E. "Jay" Hunter in a school rest room, choking him and slamming his head into a bathroom stall before threatening to kill him.

A Knox County teacher for more than a decade before resigning, Ward has denied touching or threatening the youth during the encounter, which allegedly occurred after he reported a profane comment she made about the principal in front of students.

But Ward's attorney, David S. Wigler, argued in his motion that the indictment against her should be dismissed under the state law that requires authorities to take certain steps before charging a teacher in connection with corporal punishment.

That law requires an independent medical verification of injury, for instance, before a warrant can be taken.

Wigler also noted the law doesn't define corporal punishment.

"Unless there are good reasons not to follow the clear and unambiguous language of the statute this case must be dismissed," Wigler told Leibowitz.

Knox County Middle Schools Coordinator Bobby Gratz testified that the system here does not allow corporal punishment and has not since 1996. But Wigler elicited testimony from Gratz that the policy is an oral one, and he could not say if that instruction was given at Cedar Bluff or to Ward.

Assistant Knox County District Attorney Jennifer Welch countered with a sharp attack on Wigler's motion, arguing that the state law is irrelevant in this case.

"I don't believe we even need to get to the question about whether Ms. Ward was ever instructed ... an assault took place that had nothing to do with corporal punishment," Welch said.

Arguing that the discipline law deals with paddling, Welch told Leibowitz, it's "not to allow a teacher to willy nilly assault a student either verbally or physically."

At one point Welch asked Gratz a series of questions stemming from the allegations against Ward. Did he consider slamming a child's head into a bathroom stall acceptable corporal punishment? she asked. How about threatening to kill a student? Threatening to put a cigarette out on his skin? Is it appropriate to choke a student? And finally, is it appropriate to threaten to have someone else kill a student?

Gratz answered no to each question.

"I don't think I have anything further your honor," Welch concluded.

After noting that the school system didn't help much by not including the corporal punishment ban in its written policies, Leibowitz said she would not grant the motion.

She said, "I think that the issue of whether or not the statute is triggered is a jury question," when the matter goes to trial.

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