Teachers ordered fourth-grader to do pushups for talking in class. Was it appropriate?

Fresno Unified policies don’t lead to ‘swift, certain and consistent’ discipline, board trustee says

Fresno Unified trustees and teachers say the district lacks a consistent discipline policy, which is leading to violence in classrooms. Board trustee Carol Mills spoke at a news conference May 25, 2016.
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Fresno Unified trustees and teachers say the district lacks a consistent discipline policy, which is leading to violence in classrooms. Board trustee Carol Mills spoke at a news conference May 25, 2016.

Shy and insecure, the fourth-grade student dropped to the floor of a classroom filled with students, ordered by a Fresno teacher to do pushups and other calisthenics for talking during a lesson.

Nearly three years after the incident, Fresno Unified teachers Michelle Coyne and Joshua Gehris are on trial in Fresno Superior Court, accused in a civil trial of humiliating the fourth-grader, a 9-year-old girl.

In opening statements of the trial, Fresno attorney Jason Helsel, who represents the girl and her mother, called Coyne and Gehris “bullies” for making the frightened girl do pushups, leg lifts and “planks” — an exercise in which a person uses his or her toes and elbows to remain off the ground.

As the girl was doing the exercises, students watched in silence, fearing they would be next to do pushups if they spoke out, Helsel told the jury.

Fresno attorney Bruce Berger, who is representing the Fresno Unified School District, Gehris and Coyne, however, told the jury that state law gives teachers wide discretion in disciplining students in order to manage the classroom.

“This case is not about bullying,” Berger said.

The trial in Judge Donald Black’s courtroom is expected to take two weeks. Testimony is expected to be highly charged — because in two days of jury selection potential jurors voiced strong feelings about today’s youth and discipline in schools.

Some of them said children today lack respect for teachers and need to be disciplined.

“A teacher’s job is hard enough,” one potential juror said. Other potential jurors recalled being disciplined in school decades ago — and said the mental scars remains with them today.

The girl is identified as Jane Doe in court papers. Now around 12 years old, she is expected to testify next week..

The incident happened Jan. 21, 2016, at Slater Elementary School near Shaw and Marks avenues in northwest Fresno. The girl and her mother are seeking damages for negligence, negligent training of Gehris and Coyne, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

After the incident, Helsel said, the girl began seeing a therapist who diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder and an anxiety disorder. Because of the incident, the girl’s emotions jump from sad and being withdrawn to angry with frequent outbursts, Helsel said.

But Berger said the district hired a doctor to examine the girl. The expert agreed the girl suffers from anxiety, but the disorder is not traced to the Jan. 21, 2016 incident, Berger said. The girl does not suffer from PTSD, Berger said, because she was not involved in a life-threatening episode.

Helsel told jurors the expert’s opinion is skewed — and that person was paid $20,000 to $30,000 to interview the girl for one hour, read reports about the incident, and write a report.

Coyne is a longtime Fresno Unified teacher, having spent nearly two decades at Slater Elementary School. Helsel said the girl was in Coyne’s classroom and liked her teacher. “Ms Coyne is good with kids,” Helsel said. “(The 9-year-old student) felt safe in her classroom. It was a good learning environment.”

Helsel said the girl didn’t know Gehris, a military veteran, because he was a first-time teacher when he got a job at Slater Elementary during the 2015-16 school year.

According to Berger, Gehris thought making students do calisthenics was a good way to keep them focus after the Christmas break. “A lot of these kids are sugared up and have extra energy,” Berger told the jury. The exercises “was a way to burn off the extra energy, not punishment,” he said.

Gehris had used the method on other students and no parents ever complained, Berger said.

Helsel, however, said the humiliation and fear the girl felt left her traumatized and emotionally withdrawn.

He also said it wasn’t even the girl’s fault that she had gotten into trouble in the first place, as Coyne put a student who was a troublemaker in the seat next to the plaintiff. When the classmate asked the girl for a pencil, Coyne saw the plaintiff talking and got upset, Helsel said. Coyne ordered the girl to Gehris’ classroom.

When the girl arrived at Gehris’ classroom, a student warned her that she would have to do pushups. With class in session, Gehris ordered the girl to get on the ground and start doing pushups, Helsel said.

The girl was confused, Helsel said, because she never had been to Gehris’ class before. Scared, the girl complied with Gehris’ order, the lawyer said.

Because the girl could not do pushups correctly, Gehris yelled at her. She then did pushups with her knees on the ground, Helsel said. After the pushups, the girl was ordered to do leg lifts, planks and other exercises, Helsel said.

“Gehris will say he made her do the exercises for five to seven minutes,” Helsel told the jury. “But to her, it felt like a lifetime.”

Once she completed her punishment, Helsel said, Gehris ordered the girl to apologize to Coyne, which the girl did.

That night, the girl told her mother what happened. The mother went to Slater Elementary and demanded that her daughter be removed from Coyne’s classroom and put in another classroom. Berger said school officials did just that.

Afterward, the girl’s mother contacted Fresno County Behavior Health to get help for her daughter.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts
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