A former Cherokee County high school teacher cannot be held criminally responsible for failing to report that a student had been having sex with the school’s wrestling coach, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The court’s unanimous decision cleared Kristin Lynn May, a former teacher at River Ridge High School, of being charged under a state law that requires teachers to report reasonable suspicions of child abuse — in this case a sexual relationship between a coach and a 16-year-old student.
The court noted that May was also having an affair with the wrestling coach when the student told her about her relationship with him. The ruling did not address whether May’s own relationship with the coach played a role in her decision not to report him.
The court ruled in May’s favor because the student, identified only by her initials “P.M.,” told May about the sexual contact after the student had transferred to another school. Under the state’s “mandatory reporting” law, the teacher would have been required to report abuse if she had been “attending” the child, the court said. The ruling stopped short, however, of saying which teachers at a school would have such an obligation.
“In these circumstances, we cannot conceive any set of facts by which the state may prove that May was attending to P.M. pursuant to her duties as a school teacher at River Ridge,” Justice Keith Blackwell wrote. He noted that May was not a teacher at the student’s school when the student told her of the abuse.
The mandatory reporting law applies to teachers and a host of other professionals and volunteer workers, such as doctors, guidance counselors, child welfare agency personnel, law enforcement officers and therapists.
The 16-year-old had been a student of May’s at River Ridge, but the teenager transferred to Roswell High at the end of the fall 2010 semester. The student began a sexual relationship with Robert Leslie Morrow, a River Ridge wrestling coach and paraprofessional, during the Christmas break.
In January 2011, the student, who had returned to River Ridge to watch a basketball game, told May she once had a sexual relationship with Morrow, the ruling said. At that time, the ruling said, May was having an affair with Morrow.
Seven months later, the student told police about her relationship with Morrow. Authorities then arrested both Morrow and May — he for sexual assault and she for failing to report child abuse.
Morrow was convicted earlier this year on a felony sexual assault charge and sentenced to 240 days in detention and 10 years on probation.
May’s lawyers challenged the accusations in pretrial motions. But a trial judge rejected them, reasoning that a schoolteacher is required to report the abuse of any child, even one with whom the teacher has no relationship.
The state Supreme Court on Monday overturned that decision, saying the obligation to report is limited to teachers who “attend” their students.
Exactly what that means — and how it can or cannot be applied — will have to be determined by the court in a future challenge.
Whether a schoolteacher “attends” a child pursuant to his or her duties may present a question of fact in some cases, Blackwell noted.
“(F)or instance, when the child is not assigned to the class of the teacher, but the child is enrolled as a student at the same school,” Blackwell wrote. “This, however, is no such case.”
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