The parents said the law and the judge’s interpretation of it went too far, and they’ve accused Melanie Pickens, who taught at Hopewell Middle School in Milton, of abusing their children from 2004 to 2007.
“This is a dangerous law, especially when it’s being misused. It’s a loaded gun,” said Ronald Hatcher, who believes Pickens tormented his son, Aaron. “This type of thing going on now makes me think if you want to abuse kids and molest kids, come to Georgia because we will give you immunity.”
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said in a statement he was “deeply disappointed” in Newkirk’s decision, and he is appealing the case to the Georgia Court of Appeals. Pickens was charged with 11 counts of cruelty to children and false imprisonment.
Pickens resigned from the Fulton County school system in 2007, and her teaching certificate was revoked for three years by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission in 2008.
Aaron Hatcher, who suffered from cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy before dying at age 18 in 2011, was locked in a room for crying in class and dumped out of his wheelchair, his father said.
Parent Mark Lee said Pickens used “scream therapy,” in which she mocked his son’s cries, put him in a room until he cried himself out and threw her shoes at students.
Lee said Pickens doesn’t deserve protection from the law when she caused physical and emotional harm to students.
“You could say that virtually anything a teacher was doing was hoping to further educate the kids or ensure safety in the classroom,” said Lee, whose son, Garrett, has autism and a genetic disorder. “Some of the acts you might do under those auspices might be incredibly harmful.”
But Pickens’ attorney, B.J. Bernstein, said the state educator immunity law shields teachers who need to control their classrooms when students are being disruptive or pose a danger to other children.
“She believed by doing this, she was disciplining the child and protecting the classroom,” Bernstein said. “She wasn’t doing it just to be mean. She was doing it for a disciplinary purpose.”
Pickens removed students from class when they needed to settle down, and she stopped doing “scream therapy” when she realized it wasn’t working, Bernstein said. Pickens also didn’t slam students against lockers, but she would use her knee to hold children up when they didn’t want to remove their backpacks, Bernstein said.
A federal lawsuit on behalf of another student, Alexander Williams, said she restrained disabled children in chairs while they spread feces on themselves, pulled their hair, kicked them and threw hard objects at them.
In 2012, a state administrative law judge ruled that Pickens had abused Williams, and the judge ordered the school system to pay for five years of private education for him.
Teachers are protected by state law because they need to be able to take appropriate disciplinary action without having to face potential lawsuits or criminal charges, said Phil Hartley, a Gainesville attorney who represents public school districts across Georgia.
“The consequences of not having that protection would be parents fearful that teachers would be afraid to act and wouldn’t have the same control over the classroom that parents want their teachers to have,” Hartley said. “Obviously a teacher who intentionally harms a student wouldn’t be protected in any way.”
The law provides a broad safeguard to teachers, even when their methods of discipline may not be appropriate, said Hartley, who had no knowledge of Pickens’ case.
“There can be a lot of things that aren’t appropriate that don’t rise to the level of being criminal,” he said.
A separate state law covers when educators may use corporal punishment. That law grants immunity only when they act in good faith and follow school district policies, Hartley said.