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Abuse or accountability? Student’s forced pushups case heading to jury

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.

Jurors will determine whether a Fresno teacher was negligent for ordering a 9-year-old girl to do pushups and other exercises in a classroom filled with students, a judge ruled Tuesday in rejecting Fresno Unified School District’s request to dismiss the case.

Fresno Superior Court Judge Donald Black’s ruling means jurors will begin deliberations Wednesday after lawyers do closing arguments in the civil trial.

During four days of testimony, the girl’s lawyers, Jason Helsel and Mark Vogt, have accused teachers Michelle Coyne and Joshua Gehris of being “bullies” for making the frightened fourth-grader do calisthenics in front of students to publicly shame her.

Because the lawyers said the girl is shy and insecure about her appearance, the incident at Slater Elementary School in January 2016 left her sad and withdrawn with anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder. As a result, she had to see a therapist once a week, her attorneys said.

Fresno attorney Bruce Berger, who represents Fresno Unified, Gehris and Coyne, however, has told jurors state law gives teachers discretion in disciplining students to manage the classroom..

In her testimony, Coyne said she sent the 9-year-old student to Gehris’ classroom because she and another girl were talking during a class lesson. Coyne testified she he didn’t know Gehris was making students do pushups and leg lifts in front of class.

Gehris testified he never intended to harm the girl. According to Berger, Gehris believed making students do calisthenics in the classroom was a good way “to burn off energy, not punishment” after Christmas break.

Coyne is no longer part of the case; before Black made his ruling on Tuesday, the girl’s lawyers dismissed Coyne as a defendant.

In legal arguments Tuesday, Berger said the case should be dismissed because state law gives teachers immunity from lawsuits — as long as the discipline is not corporal punishment or unlawful. He said if students are allowed to sue simply because they are embarrassed or humiliated, it would make it difficult for teachers to manage their classroom.

“Who would want to be a teacher if they knew they could be liable?” Berger argued. “The job is hard enough.”



In making his ruling, Black granted Fresno Unified’s request to dismiss a claim that the school district was negligent in hiring Gehris.

But Black kept intact the girl’s negligence claims against Gehris and the school district. In his analysis, the judge noted that every teacher and school administrator who testified in the trial, including Coyne, said they never have ordered a student to do physical exercises in front of students in the classroom.

Though state law gives immunity to teachers and other public employees, Black said the law does not protect them if they are negligent in carrying out their duties.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts
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