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State Supreme Court tosses conviction of Georgia paraprofessional who had sex with student

I suspect this decision released today by the state Supreme Court will spark a lot of discussion.

From the State Supreme Court:

The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled that the sexual assault conviction of a Cherokee County school paraprofessional who had sex with a 16-year-old student must be thrown out.

In today’s unanimous opinion, Justice Keith Blackwell writes that under the statute outlawing the conduct, the paraprofessional convicted of the crime could not be considered a “teacher,” and therefore the statute did not apply to him.

According to briefs filed in the case, in December 2010, Robert Leslie Morrow, 27, was a paraprofessional and wrestling coach at River Ridge High School. The school had hired him as a paraprofessional to attend to the needs of a special-needs child, known as “Pablo.” It was Morrow’s job to accompany Pablo to all his classes and ensure that the boy, who had mental illness, did not disrupt the class.

At the same time, P.M., 16, was a sophomore and cheerleader at River Ridge High School. She got to know “Coach Morrow,” as the students called him, because she shared homeroom and math class with Pablo. During December 2010, P.M. misbehaved and was placed in River Ridge’s in-school suspension program for eight days.

During that period, Pablo was also in detention for one day, and Morrow accompanied him. P.M. acknowledged that earlier, she had given Morrow her phone number by leaving a note on his car window. The day Morrow accompanied Pablo to in-school suspension, P.M. again gave him her phone number, and he then sent her a text message.

The two then began exchanging what she described as “flirty” text messages. On December 11, 2010, P.M. drove herself to a birthday party of a fellow student. While there, she and Morrow exchanged texts and talked by phone. She then left the party and drove to meet Morrow at a nearby Publix parking lot where she got into his car.

Morrow drove to a parking lot in his neighborhood where they had sexual contact and P.M. performed oral sex on him. A week later she changed high schools and became enrolled at Roswell High School. After leaving River Ridge, P.M. met Morrow on two to four other occasions and the two had sexual intercourse, although Morrow was not charged for his acts after she transferred.

About six months later, P.M. told her mother about her sexual contact with Morrow, and she took her daughter to report the matter to local law enforcement. Morrow was arrested and indicted on one count of sexual assault under Georgia Code § 16-5-5.1. That statute says: “A person who has supervisory or disciplinary authority over another individual commits sexual assault when that person (1) is a teacher, principal, assistant principal, or other administrator of any school and engages in sexual conduct with such other individual who the actor knew or should have known is enrolled at the same school….”

Morrow’s attorney filed a motion to “quash” or throw out the indictment, arguing that because he was a “paraprofessional,” rather than a “teacher,” the statute under which he was indicted did not apply to him. Following a hearing, the trial court denied Morrow’s motion, relying on the Georgia Court of Appeals’ 2013 decision in Hart v. State,  in which it ruled that the term “teacher,” as used in § 16-5-5.1, “would include a paraprofessional who taught in a high school classroom.”

Morrow was subsequently tried by a jury and convicted of sexual assault. He was given a 10-year sentence on probation with specialized sex offender conditions, a $1,500 fine, and 240 days in a detention center.

Morrow appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals, arguing that the statute did not apply to him because he was a paraprofessional, not a teacher, and there was insufficient evidence that he had supervisory or disciplinary authority over P.M. The appellate court agreed and reversed the ruling, finding that the state was required to prove that Morrow was a “teacher, principal, assistant principal, or other administrator” of the school where P.M. was enrolled and that he had supervisory or disciplinary authority “specifically” over her.

“Given the state’s failure to prove that Morrow had any supervisory or disciplinary authority over the victim, it failed to prove an essential element of the charged crime,” the Court of Appeals ruled. The State then appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, which agreed to review the case to determine whether the Court of Appeals correctly interpreted § 16-5-5.1 to require proof that the defendant had “specific” supervisory or disciplinary authority over the student in question, as opposed to having that authority over students “generally.” Also, the high court asked whether any “rational” judge or jury could have reached the jury’s conclusion that Morrow was a “teacher” at River Ridge High School under § 16-5-5.1.

In today’s opinion, “we conclude that the State may carry its burden of proving supervisory or disciplinary authority by evidence of general or specific authority. Here, the State came forward with evidence that Morrow had some general supervisory or disciplinary over students in P.M.’s math class, and so, the Court of Appeals erred when it reversed his conviction on that ground. We also conclude, however, that the State failed to prove that Morrow was a ‘teacher, principal, assistant principal, or other administrator of any school,’ and for that reason, Morrow’s conviction cannot stand. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.”

As used in Georgia Code § 16-5-5.1 (b) (1), “‘teacher’ means a teacher, and it does not mean a paraprofessional or other educator,” the opinion says. “The degree of specificity in the statutory identification of school administrators to whom the statute applies suggests that the statute does not use ‘teacher’ in a generic or unusually broad sense.”

Even the State acknowledged that Morrow did not do work typical of teachers, such as grading work, instructing students or administering tests.

“Moreover, River Ridge is a public school, and any ‘teacher’ at a public school is required to be certified as such by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission,” the opinion says. “For these reasons, the State failed to prove that Morrow was a person to whom § 16-5-5.1 (b) (1) applies, and his conviction must be set aside.”

The Court notes in a footnote: “If the General Assembly desires to expand the scope of § 16-5-5.1 to include paraprofessionals (or other school employees such as bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and janitors), it certainly may do so by defining the persons to whom the statute applies in broader terms….But the statute currently applies only to teachers, principals, assistant principals, and other administrators, and this Court cannot judicially rewrite the statute.”


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Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.