Dear Legal Mailbag:
One of the kindergarten teachers in my school is a bit of a drama queen and, thus, I was not terribly surprised when she made a big deal out of an accident in her classroom. One of her students (a five year old, mind you) freaked out when he realized that he had forgotten his “love object” for show-and-tell. The teacher tried to comfort him, but he was wailing and flailing about and, unfortunately, he connected with the teacher’s face as he was swinging his arms wildly, giving her a black eye.
When she reported this unfortunate event, I was duly sympathetic. I told her to see the doctor and to file a report of injury, and I thought that the situation was resolved. I was therefore surprised when she showed up the next day with her union representative with a written “report of an assault.” I asked them what I was supposed to do with the “report,” and they impatiently told me that I should report this assault to the police. I am afraid that I made things worse when I laughed out loud at what I thought was a joke. Dead serious, they told me that I am obligated to file the report with the police, and then they chastised me for my lack of concern for teacher safety.
Frankly, I am at a loss here. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful, but this seems ridiculous. Do you know something I don’t know about my obligations here?
Color Me Confused
Indeed, Legal Mailbag knows all about your obligations when a teacher (or other school employee) files with you a report of assault by a student on school property. But what puzzles even Legal Mailbag is whether those obligations apply here.
In Connecticut, school principals have a statutory obligation to report assaults by students on school employees to the local police when they receive a written request to do so. Specifically, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-233g(a) provides:
(a) Where there is a physical assault made by a student upon a teacher or other school employee on school property or in performance of school duties and such teacher or employee files a written report with the school principal based upon such assault, the school building principal shall report such physical assault to the local police authority.
In many cases, it will be clear that an assault has occurred, and there will be no question that you are required to share the employee’s written report of the assault with the local police. But other times, including the unfortunate events in that kindergarten classroom, it will not be at all clear whether an assault occurred.
Determining what is an “assault” in the school context has legal significance because a separate statute, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-236a, provides special rights to teachers who are injured in an “assault” by a student, including the right to paid leave without charge to sick leave as well as payment for all related medical bills. However, Legal Mailbag has reviewed the case law on this subject and the courts are divided on how to define an “assault” in such cases. One superior court adopted a definition of an “assault” as “an intentionally violent and hostile attack on another person” and ruled in 2004 that an employee injured through student horseplay was not entitled to the benefits of Section 10-236a. By contrast, in considering a claim under the statute when a special education student injured a paraprofessional, another superior court ruled in 2011 that intent is not necessary to establish an “assault” under Section 10-236a. In 2017, a third superior court judge noted the disagreement in these two cases over how “assault” should be defined in interpreting Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-236a. However, the court declined to side with either prior ruling. Rather, the court dismissed cross motions for summary judgment on the basis that there are genuine issues of material fact in the case that preclude summary judgment. We are now waiting for a ruling on the merits in that case.
Given the uncertainties, Legal Mailbag offers the following practical advice. If a teacher (or other school employee) files with you a written report alleging an assault, go ahead and forward the report to the local police. However, if you do not believe that the actions described in the report constitute an assault, share your position as well to avoid creating the inference that you have conceded that the described events meet the statutory definition of assault.
Finally, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-233g(b) provides that “No school administrator shall interfere with the right of a teacher or other employee of a board of education to file a complaint with the local police authority in cases of threats of physical violence and in cases of physical assaults by a student against such teacher or employee.” Even when you disagree with the school employee’s claim of assault, let the employee file a report with the police as he or she sees fit. Not that you, of course, would be tempted to do otherwise.