The Connecticut Supreme Court upheld a decision placing a public school teacher on the Department of Children and Families abuse registry based on an administrative finding that the teacher emotionally abused one of his students by repeatedly calling him hurtful and embarrassing names such as “birthing mother”, “cheeks” and “pregnant” and by pinching the student’s cheeks. The Court did not accept the defense that the teacher intended these comments in a joking manner.
The District had given the plaintiff both verbal and written warnings to discontinue such conduct. The Court concluded that the definition of “abused” in Conn. Gen. Stat. §46b-120 is not unconstitutionally vague because the DCF policy manual, prior court decisions as well as the state bullying prevention statutes provide notice to a professional educator that such conduct is potentially harmful to students. The Court found that the findings of the DCF hearing officer, that this conduct was intentional and that the teacher knew or should have known that this conduct met the standard for a finding of abuse, were supported by substantial evidence in the record.
This decision makes clear that school staff members are on notice that name calling or teasing of students may be considered child abuse that results in placement of the teacher on the abuse registry. Further, this decision provides notice to school districts of the need to take action to investigate promptly any allegations of inappropriate teasing or name calling and take remedial action as needed to address such issues. Moreover, this ruling is a reminder to mandated reporters of the need to file a report with DCF in such circumstances even if DCF is reluctant to accept and investigate such referrals.
Names can not only hurt, they can also be reason for a finding of abuse.