JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Former Darnell-Cookman School of the Medical Arts teacher Caroline Lee is calling for more protections for teachers after the State Attorney’s Office dropped child abuse charges against her earlier this month.
Lee was arrested last year following the accusations by an eighth-grade student that Lee struck her, but earlier this month the State Attorney’s Office decided to drop those charges citing a lack of evidence. Lee said the experience was traumatic and has maintained she was falsely accused and did not hit the student.
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In the case, the state attorney did not directly say the student lied about being struck, but prosecutors said the charge was dropped for multiple reasons, including a lack of video evidence, a lack of witnesses and the assertion that the student may have had the motivation to make up the story.
“If I don’t like my French class, I can go and say, you know, excuse me, guidance counselor, my French teacher called me a bad name. The teacher is out, and the student is upheld,” Lee said. “I think that there has to be something which protects teachers.”
Labor and Employment Attorney Tad Delegal, who is not affiliated with the case, said false allegations against teachers do happen.
“You have situations where students will, frankly, conspire and make things up. And I’ve seen that happen. You have other circumstances where other persons may be covering up for their own wrongdoing and make a false accusation or there’ll be faulty interpretations of the facts where somebody really didn’t commit an action. So there are all kinds of situations about when should teachers should be protected,” Delegal said.
Delegal said teachers do have some union protections that help them keep their jobs.
“State legislation could be bolstered to provide additional protections. The state statutes changed in 2011 to provide lesser protections, and, frankly, they could go back to providing greater protections,” Delegal said. “Folks say, ‘Well, we have to get rid of bad teachers and we don’t want to keep bad teachers, bad public employees,’ and that’s one consideration. But at the same time, you want to make sure that teachers are protected and other public employees are protected against wrongful allegations, against political considerations, against persons who simply have a grudge against somebody for doing their job.”
Lee was reassigned to work at the district’s Teacher Supply Depot while her case was being investigated, and maintained her $50,503 salary but is no longer employed by DCPS, according to the district.
In Lee’s situation, the state attorney concluded Lee had, “a viable argument that the Victim reported the incident in an effort to avoid another disciplinary action.”
The state attorney did note that Lee — who confronted the student alone in her classroom over an allegedly threatening message on Instagram — did violate the school code of conduct by not reporting it to the school administrators first.
Lee said it was her word against the student’s word and felt like she was thrown under the bus by Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene after her arrest.
”This allegation and the arrest are beyond disturbing. What is alleged should never occur — ever — especially in a school setting,” Greene said in a statement in October 2021. “I have no tolerance for adults who harm children, especially adults in a position of trust. We will cooperate with all investigations, and pending those results, we will take the actions necessary to stand up for and protect our students.”
Lee said she was hurt by the statement.
“What I would have liked is for [administrators] to look into perhaps the validity of the student, before throwing the teacher into a situation, which is so bizarre,” Lee said.
But DCPS, who is still investigating the incident, said it was just following state law.
In a statement to News4JAX DCPS said: “State law and school board policy require that an employee be removed from all contact with students pending the outcome of an investigation when the allegation involves a threat to student safety and welfare. If there is an external and internal investigation, the internal investigation will take into account the evidence and outcomes revealed in the external investigation.”
News4JAX tried to reach out to the Duval teachers union to learn more about the protections in place to shield teachers against any false allegations but did not immediately hear back.