Former River Ridge High School language arts teacher Kristin May, who was arrested in 2011 for failing to report an alleged inappropriate relationship between a paraprofessional and a student, appealed to the state’s highest court Feb. 4 after a trial court judge refused to drop criminal charges.
“Our appeal is based on the interpretation of the mandatory reporting statute that is required of not just school teachers but 14 other (professions), including doctors and dentists and volunteers,” said J. Wickliffe Cauthorn, of Cauthorn Nohr & Owen, who is representing May in her appeal. “Our position is that if there is not an active student-teacher relationship, there is no duty to report, and since there is no duty to report, the statute has not been violated.”
Cherokee Sheriff’s Office investigators charged May in the summer of 2011 for failing to report an alleged several-month long sexual relationship between a student and paraprofessional Robert Morrow.
Morrow turned himself in to Woodstock Police in July 2011 when investigators learned of at least one occasion when he and the student, who allegedly had transferred out of the school, engaged in sexual misconduct within city limits.
He was charged with sexual assault by a person of authority, a felony offense.
May was arrested that same day at the school print shop, which is where she was reassigned to until the criminal and internal investigations were complete. May resigned from her position in August 2011, and Morrow was terminated.
Although arrests didn’t come till the summer of 2011, the inappropriate student-teacher relationship reportedly began in December 2010, and May is accused of knowing about the misconduct since January 2011.
The state argues that May violated the law because she was mandated to report any inappropriate incidents involving teachers and students to the proper authorities, but neglected to do so.
Assistant Chief Solicitor General Barry Hixson contended that May learned of the alleged relationship on school property and, despite the student transferring to a new school, she still was obligated to report the abuse.
“Ms. May was still working in a school where she had knowledge or resources to believe that abuse had occurred at the hands of someone else in that school,” he said. “The state argues that she still had a duty to report because she still had students who were in an environment where there was a risk.”
In the appeal to the Supreme Court of Georgia, however, May’s attorneys argued that the trial court misinterpreted the statute and that because the student had transferred, the mandatory reporting law does not apply.
“Our position is that in order for someone to be a mandatory reporter under the statute, they have to have an active professional obligation with the child abuse victim,” Cauthorn said. “That means there has be to an active student-teacher relationship … because without that, the statute becomes unyielding and probably illegal.”
Cauthorn likened a psychologist’s mandatory reporting requirement to his non-mandatory reporting status as a lawyer.
“If one of the mandatory reporters does not have an active relationship with the child abuse victim then what is the difference between them as a psychologist and me as a lawyer with respect to the victim?” he asked. “If it is not (their) patient as a psychologist how is (he/she) any differently situated toward the child than a reporter or a lawyer or an architect? If you don’t have the active relationship, then the statute doesn’t make any sense.”
Cauthorn further explained that May had no power over the student, as the alleged victim in this case was no longer in the school system.
“A teacher has a lot of duties to a student … we aren’t saying that it is strictly student-teacher related to class; it is that if a teacher has no power over the student, then as a result, the teacher has no relationship that would trigger the duty to report.”
The state also must prove that May “knowingly and willfully” failed to report the alleged abuse under the statute; however, Hixson contended he is not required to prove that the appellant knew her legal duty to report.
Cauthorn says his client did not knowingly violate the statute.
“All criminal statutes do not have the words ‘willfully and knowingly,’ and, as a matter of fact, most do not,” he said. “What you have to remember is that this statute makes something that is perfectly legal
for me and you to do illegal for certain groups of people. There is no strict liability. If you don’t act with an intent to break the law then you haven’t knowingly and willfully violated the statute.”
As of press time, the Supreme Court had not handed down any opinions in May’s case; however, Cauthorn said he is “hoping the argument clears up the statute not just in respect to school teachers but to all it effects.”
“We are hoping the Supreme Court will give guidance to the lower courts and the people in the category so they can really know what the law means because right now it is not necessarily crystal clear,” he said.
Morrow’s criminal case is ongoing in Cherokee County Superior Court. He pleaded not guilty to the sexual assault charge in December 2011.