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The Utah Court of Appeals has ruled a teacher who disciplined a student by taping the third-grader to a desk did not commit an act of neglect or abuse.
The appellate court reversed a ruling by the late 2nd District Juvenile Judge Kathleen Nelson, who was reviewing an administrative finding by the Utah Division of Child and Family Services against the teacher.
The 2nd District Court deals with cases in Weber, Davis and Morgan counties, but court documents do not identify the teacher involved.
Nelson determined the teacher had engaged in 2007 in a "serious incident of psychologically destructive behavior," according to the appellate opinion. The judge made a substantiated finding that the teacher's actions were "neglect emotional maltreatment."
The teacher appealed, and the appellate judges determined the statutory definition of neglect used by DCFS in investigations cannot be read to include emotional maltreatment.
"The evidence is insufficient to prove abuse," the appeals judges also wrote in their ruling.
The teacher was challenging a court finding that could end up in a statewide database maintained by DCFS. The agency places findings like it in the confidential database, which can be viewed by some state agencies to get a history of previous events.
An Ogden-based attorney who represented the teacher said he has concerns about how the DCFS system treated his client.
"DCFS is a necessary agency," said attorney Brad Smith. "But not every situation requires the heavy-handed imprint of DCFS."
But Utah Assistant Attorney General John Peterson said the database has many purposes. He believes the judges' ruling could have an impact beyond just this case if investigators and others become more limited in using the finding of emotional maltreatment.
"Their determination ... could have some ramification for all juvenile court cases," said Peterson.
The case started in October 2007 when DCFS received a report that a teacher had physically abused an unidentified student in her third-grade class.
According to the opinion, the student was not paying attention in class and kept taking things out of her desk in a disruptive manner. The teacher warned the student, then placed one six-inch piece of Scotch tape across each of the third-grader's wrists and attached the ends of the tape to the desk.
The student "was giggling at the time," the opinion states. The teacher testified she waited approximately two minutes before she allowed the student to remove the tape, after which the student's behavior was "totally different."
In early October, the teacher's school district received letters from three parents complaining about the teacher's behavior toward their children.
The teacher was verbally reprimanded by the school district and told to refrain from engaging in similar discipline in the future, the opinion states. The principal and a school district representative testified at the trial that scotch taping student's wrists was a minor violation of the school district's policy against corporal punishment.
Against the teacher, DCFS supported a finding for "emotional maltreatment general," which was affirmed by an administrative law judge, then appealed to the juvenile court.
Nelson, 58, passed away Aug. 31 from injuries suffered in a fall after the case left her court.
A decision on appealing the case to the Utah Supreme Court had not been made, Peterson said Tuesday.