State law allows paddling, and AEA backs Jackson teacher
by Karen Tolkkinen, Mobile Register

February 22, 2003

JACKSON -- When special education teacher Anthony Ezell paddled the stepdaughter of Jackson's assistant police chief last fall, he ended up getting attacked on school property, court records say, and charged with harassment.

Last week, he learned that the man accused of attacking him, the girl's older brother, apparently will not go to trial. A Clarke County grand jury refused to indict. The news upset Ezell and school officials, but pleased the girl's family, which contends that teachers shouldn't be allowed to use corporal punishment.

"I feel like the grand jury should have brought some kind of charge against the boy," said Rance Carr, assistant principal at Jackson Middle School, who witnessed the paddling. "Anytime somebody can set foot on the school grounds and whip a teacher, we're just on the verge of chaos."

The girl's stepfather, Assistant Police Chief Dale Coulter, acknowledged that his stepson, William Christopher Payne, struck the teacher, and said he did not condone Payne's actions. But he said teachers should find other ways of dealing with unruly students, especially those with learning disabilities that require more patience, like his 12-year-old stepdaughter.

"A police officer does not have the authority to issue any kind of corporal punishment," he said. "Even in the prison system they can't, against murderers and rapists. The only establishment in this state that can do that is the schools."

State law allows teachers and school administrators to paddle children in order to maintain classroom discipline.

The issue calls attention to family connections and race relations in this paper mill city of about 5,400 residents, as well as to the merits of paddling students and the protections afforded teachers.

The Alabama Education Association, which backed Ezell, is contemplating further action, said local representative Cynthia Older.

"It's just not something we can allow to let go," she said. "We just can't have open season on our teachers."

The union advises teachers not to use corporal punishment because of liability, but will support teachers who get in trouble over it because the law protects them, she said.

Ezell, a black man, said he believes his civil rights were violated and that he is contemplating legal action of his own.

The incident began on Oct. 7, according to Ezell and court records, when his special education English class was misbehaving. The students are not retarded, but have learning disabilities that need attention, he said.

After repeated warnings, he told them that if they didn't settle down, he would take them into the hall for some "home training."

His students know that's a euphemism for corporal punishment, he said.

When the misbehavior continued, he selected four students who were out of their seats and brought them into the hall, he said. As required, he had a witness -- Carr. He swatted each student once, he said. Carr said he used a thin strip of plastic molding.

Carr said it didn't appear that Ezell switched any of the students hard, but that he saw photos that indicated the girl developed a bruise. Coulter called the bruise "pretty severe," and that his stepdaughter has suffered emotionally from it.

Ezell said that as far as he knows, none of the other students or parents complained. The girl might bruise more easily than the other students, he said.

After school that day, Ezell said, 18-year-old Payne, a former student, showed up in the hall, cursing and threatening him.

Coulter also came to the school. He sat down with school officials, voicing his displeasure with the paddling, Carr said.

At Jackson Middle School, parents have the option of forbidding the use of corporal punishment on their chil dren, but very few parents ever do, Carr said, and it was not done in this case. Coulter said he has since asked that his stepdaughter not be paddled.

After the meeting, Ezell said, he left the school building with a boy who is in a youth ministry the teacher runs. At that point, Payne came up to him again and punched him with his fists, causing him to have to get stitches next to his eye, according to Ezell and court records.

He went to the police station to report the assault. The police sent him to the hospital, then came there to take his statement, he said. They wouldn't take pictures of his injuries, so his wife came to take photos, he said.

Coulter said investigators generally take photos in felony assault cases, but he could not comment on Ezell's case because he stayed out of it.

Later, Ezell learned he was charged with harassment.

"Harassment?" he said. "I'm just being a teacher carrying out my classroom duties."

Alabama law provides teachers immunity from civil and criminal prosecution for using corporal punishment, and orders school systems to provide the teacher legal support, as well as support in pressing criminal charges against any who might attack a teacher.

Ezell's attorney, Thomas Figures of Mobile, asked for dismissal on those grounds, but was denied.

At Jackson Municipal Court, Ezell's accusers didn't show up, and the case was dismissed, according to court records.

Ezell said he thought that was the end of it.

But Coulter said they didn't show up because his wife, Teresa Coulter, had gone to District Attorney Bobby Keahey, who assured her that the matter might well be a felony and that he would bring it before the grand jury.

Meanwhile, Payne was charged with assault second degree, "with intent to cause physical injury to a teacheemployee of a public educational institution during or as a result of the performance of his duty," according to Clarke County Circuit Court records.

It too was turned over to the grand jury, which decided not to indict either man.

"We don't defend what he did," Coulter said. "I'm a police officer. I don't believe in taking law into your own hands. But he was a teenager and was upset about his sister and that's what happened. ... I think they understood why he lost his temper."

Ezell, 45, a husband, father, dance performer and dance instructor, said he has worked with children most of his life and would never intentionally hurt them.

He said he wonders whether his race caused the furor. He is the school's only black male teacher. And the girl was white.

"Is this because it's a black man paddling a white daughter? I don't know," he said.

Coulter said that wasn't the case. Payne's older sister is married to a black man, and they have a mixed-race child who is loved by the family, he said.

"I would say 90 percent of his friends are black," he said. "He's definitely not a racist.

Nor did his stepson receive special treatment because of Coulter's status with the Police Department, Coulter said. He was arrested and spent a couple hours in jail before being released, he said. In a small town, it's not unusual for a law enforcement officer to stay away from a case because of family or other connections, he said.

Ezell said he hasn't paddled any students since that incident.

Soon after the confrontation, his front tire was punctured on the side, he said. On Halloween, somebody left a hog's head, guts and skin on his front lawn. He's not sure whether it was a Halloween prank, or whether it was connected to the paddling.

That Payne was not indicted, he said, sends a message that "it's OK to assault."

Carr said the school had one other black male teacher, who paddled students without complaint. He declined to comment on whether he believed race was a factor in the retaliation against Ezell.

Carr said he doesn't feel the teacher has been treated fairly, and that other teachers who paddle students should be alarmed by the incident. He said he believes if he hadn't strongly defended Ezell, the teacher might be in more trouble.

"The reason I went to bat for Mr. Ezell was that he was right," Carr said. "He did everything he was supposed to do."

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