The state Supreme Court will hear arguments tomorrow on a case out of Cherokee: A Cherokee County high school teacher is appealing a trial court judge’s refusal to drop criminal charges against her for failing to report that the school wrestling coach was having sex with a 16-year-old student. The teacher argues the state’s mandatory child abuse reporting statute, as interpreted by the trial court, is unconstitutional and discriminates against teachers.
The court is looking at two questions in this case: Under the state’s mandatory reporting statute are “school teachers” mandatory reporters in all circumstances or only when they have a relationship with the child by virtue of their employment as a school teacher; To prove that one “knowingly and willfully” failed to make a report under the statute, must the state prove that the defendant acted with an evil purpose or with the knowledge that the law required her to make a report?
An odd element of this case: The student confided her sexual relationship with a male wrestling coach at a Cherokee high school to a former female teacher at the school. That teacher was also having an affair with the coach at the time. The student had transferred to another high school in Fulton County so the teacher maintains they no longer had a student-teacher relationship.
Here is a summary of the case provided by the court:
FACTS: Sixteen-year-old P.D.M. was a student at River Ridge High School in Cherokee County where she described Kristin Lynn May as her “favorite teacher.” Robert Leslie Morrow was a paraprofessional and wrestling coach at River Ridge. At the end of the fall 2010 semester, P.D.M. transferred to Roswell High School in adjacent Fulton County. During the Christmas break, she and Morrow began a sexual relationship. (The parties dispute whether P.D.M. officially withdrew before or after the break and therefore, whether she could or could not be considered still a student at River Ridge when the sexual relationship began.) In January 2011, after P.D.M. had started at her new school, she returned to River Ridge to attend a basketball game.
While she was there, she told May at least some of what had transpired between Morrow and her. May, who was married, was having an affair with Morrow at the time, and rather than report the alleged abuse to her supervisor or police, she texted Morrow about what P.D.M. had told her. Two months later, May spoke with P.D.M. at a softball game, and told the girl she did not want to talk about the situation because she could lose her job.
In April or May 2011, May e-mailed P.D.M. and asked whether she and Morrow were still involved. In July 2011, P.D.M. made a report to the Woodstock Police Department about the sexual conduct with Morrow.
Both May and Morrow were subsequently arrested and May was charged with failure to report sexual abuse. May filed an action in court, challenging the indictment, in part based upon her claim that she was not a mandatory reporter because she had no student-teacher relationship with P.D.M. at the time the girl told her what was going on.
May also argued that because the statute did not require such a relationship, it was vague and arbitrary and violated her constitutional rights to due process and equal protection. The trial court ruled against her, finding that the State could make a criminal case against her by showing that May was employed as a teacher, suspected abuse, and failed to report it. May then asked the Georgia Court of Appeals for permission to appeal, which it denied.
The state Supreme Court, however, agreed to review her case, asking the parties to answer two questions: (1) Under the state’s mandatory reporting statute (Official Code of Georgia § 19-7-5), are “school teachers” mandatory reporters in all circumstances or only when they have a relationship with the child by virtue of their employment as a school teacher; (2) To prove that one “knowingly and willfully” failed to make a report under the statute, must the State prove that the defendant acted with an evil purpose or with the knowledge that the law required her to make a report?
ARGUMENTS: May’s attorneys argue that the trial court misinterpreted the statute and that based on the history of the statute, if a mandatory reporter is not responsible for the care and protection of the child at issue, there is no duty to report. The statute itself refers to school teachers as being mandatory reporters “because” of their direct relationship with the child abuse victim. “The General Assembly intended that the mandatory reporting requirement of § 19-7-5 arises when a school teacher attends to a child abuse victim pursuant to [his/her] duties as a school teacher,” May’s attorneys argue in briefs. Here, P.D.M. was not in May’s care in May’s capacity as a teacher working in the high school where she is employed. “The student attended a different high school in a different school district. [May] had no official authority over the student.” May’s due process rights have been violated because the statute as interpreted by the trial court judge is overly vague, her attorneys argue. The statute lists numerous categories of mandatory reporters of child abuse, including some as broad as “volunteers,” making a reasonably intelligent person unsure whether she is a mandatory reporter or not. On the other hand, if the statute is interpreted to require a current and direct relationship with the victim through the reporter’s employment or status, the statute is clear and not unconstitutionally vague. Also the trial court’s interpretation of the statute violates the Constitution’s equal protection clause because it arbitrarily discriminates against teachers. If the duty to report is so broad as to require reporting even when a teacher has no direct relationship with the child abuse victim through her employment, then the State is discriminating against teachers, the attorneys argue. The trial court also erred because under the mandatory reporting statute, the State had to prove that May acted with an evil purpose or with the knowledge that she had a legal duty to report. The statute makes the otherwise legal activity of failing to report suspected child abuse illegal if a mandatory reporter “knowingly and willfully” fails to report.
The Solicitor General’s office, representing the State, argues that whenever a teacher in connection with her employment learns or suspects that a student was abused, she has a duty to report that, whether or not she has a current relationship with the student. This is exactly the type of case for which the General Assembly intended a mandatory report, the State argues. May acquired knowledge of the abuse precisely because she was considered by the victim to be her “favorite teacher,” and she learned about the abuse at a basketball game at the school where she taught.
The purpose of the mandatory reporting statute is to protect children. May’s claim that the duty to report only applies to teachers who have a current and direct relationship with an abused student undermines the broad protective policy underlying the duty to report. “While at a school event on the property of the school where she taught, [May] acquired specific knowledge of the sexual abuse of a known school student,” the State argues. “The fact that the student had several weeks previously transferred to an adjoining district with new teachers should not render [May] a disinterested stranger or a discretionary reporter.”
In response to the second question asked by the state Supreme Court, the State responds that to “prove that a teacher ‘knowingly and willfully’ failed to report child abuse in violation of § 19-7-5, the State must prove that the defendant acted with an evil purpose. The State must show that defendant intended to not report known or suspected abuse and knew or should have known that her conduct was wrong.” However, the State is not required to prove that May knew of her legal duty to report. “Ignorance of the legal duty to report is not a defense to prosecution,” the State contends.