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Jury decides in student’s forced pushups case. District’s lawyer says humility is good

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.

A Fresno teacher did nothing wrong when he ordered a 9-year-old fourth-grade girl to do pushups and other exercises in front of students for talking during a class lesson, a Superior Court jury ruled Wednesday.

The girl, now 12, showed no reaction when the verdict was announced in Judge Donald Black’s courtroom. Her attorneys and her family and friends sat in stunned silence when jurors said they voted 11-1 in favor of the Fresno Unified School District and teacher Joshua Gehris.

The jury of eight women and four men deliberated less than two hours in the civil trial, where the plaintiff needed nine votes in order to win against the district.

During the week-long trial, the girl’s lawyers, Jason Helsel and Mark Vogt, accused Gehris of being a bully 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is shy and insecure about her appearance, the incident at Slater Elementary School in January 2016 left her sad and withdrawn with anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder.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 has had to see a therapist once a week, her attorneys said.

In closing arguments on Wednesday, Helsel asked the jury to award the girl $912,500 in damages.

Fresno attorney Bruce Berger, who represents Fresno Unified and Gehris, asked the jury to award the girl nothing. He told the jury that state law gives teachers discretion in disciplining students to manage the classroom. Berger also said the girl was not harmed by the incident because the exercises lasted about two minutes.

Berger said the girl was not credible because she had told a classmate that she was going to get Gehris for embarrassing her in front of students. Berger also blamed the girl’s mother for not teaching her daughter to be a good student.

Humility is good, Berger told the jury, because without it, a person has no conscience. Embarrassment also is a valuable tool for teachers, he said, because it is a way to get a student’s attention.

Berger said if the jury sided with the girl, he feared every student who felt humiliated or embarrassed by a teacher would file a lawsuit. “Is that the kind of culture we want?” he asked the jury. “(If so), who would want to be a teacher?”

But in his final analysis, Berger said Gerhis making students do pushups and other exercises in front of students was “a bad idea” but not unlawful or against school district policy. “He won’t do it again,” he assured jurors in closing arguments.

The incident happened when fourth-grader teacher Michelle Coyne testified that she sent the 9-year-old student to Gehris’ classroom because she and another girl were caught talking during a class lesson. Coyne testified she didn’t know Gehris was going to make the student do pushups and leg lifts in his classroom. She thought the girl would get a “time out.”

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

Coyne, 46, is a longtime Fresno Unified teacher, having spent nearly two decades at Slater, where she remains. Gehris, 42, began his first year as a full-time teacher at Slater during the 2015-16 school year, when the incident happened. He currently teaches at Fort Miller Middle School.

Coyne was initially a defendant in the case. On Tuesday, the girl’s lawyers dismissed her from the case.

In his closing argument, the girl’s attorney Helsel pointed out that every teacher and administrator, including Coyne, testified in the trial that they have never ordered a student to do pushups or leg lifts in the classroom as a form of punishment.

He also pointed out that a Fresno Unified investigation said Gehris committed misconduct in making the 9-year-old do pushups and leg lifts. But Slater Principal Kelli Wilkins testified that she had mistakenly wrote “misconduct” in a letter about her investigation.

Helsel said he was upset that Berger blamed the girl and her mother for the girl’s troubles. But before the incident, Helsel told the jury that the girl was not a problem student. It was after she was traumatized, Helsel said, the girl began to get in trouble in school.

After the verdict, Helsel, Vogt and the girl’s family and friends stood outside the courtroom, wondering what went wrong. A juror stopped by and explained the verdict.

The juror said no teacher or administrator had never told Gehris that ordering students to do pushups or leg lifts in the classroom was wrong, so jurors believed he just made a mistake.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts
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