HARTFORD — The state’s highest court ruled Friday that a teacher’s name-calling was enough to justify putting him on a registry of child abusers.
The Supreme Court overturned an Appellate Court decision that would have removed Nicholas Frank’s name from the registry kept by the state Department of Children and Families.
Frank, who taught fifth and sixth grade in New Haven, was suspended from his job in 2008 for eight days after it was determined he had teased a student about his weight, pinching him on the cheeks and calling him “birthing mother” and “pregnant.”
The boy’s mother had complained to administrators, saying the teasing made her son afraid to go to school and led to trouble sleeping and bed wetting.
The department added Frank’s name to its child abuser registry after its own investigation in 2009 found the name-calling amounted to emotional abuse.
The child abuse registry isn’t available to the public, but it can be used by some potential employers conducting background checks. People on the list aren’t allowed to teach in Connecticut, said John R. Williams, Frank’s attorney. Williams said Frank has since moved to Australia.
Williams said the ruling means teachers can be labeled as child abusers for what they say in class, even if the school system does not agree with that characterization.
The ruling turns the Department of Children and Families into a “super Board of Education,” he said.
“Every day, every teacher in the state of Connecticut who interacts with kids, especially when the kids get unruly, has to stop and think, ‘Before I do anything, before I invoke discipline, think about whether it’s going to hurt their little feelings.’”
Williams had argued that the department’s use of the term “abuse” was unconstitutionally vague.
The Appellate Court had agreed, but the Supreme Court found that accepted definitions of emotional abuse include language that is degrading and that Frank was in a unique position to impact the student’s life with his words.
“It should be obvious to anyone, let alone a professional educator, that this type of behavior — the targeting of a particular student’s physical characteristics in a demeaning and hurtful way — would readily fall within the terms ‘degrading or ‘victimizing,’” Justice Dennis G. Eveleigh wrote in the unanimous decision.
The commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, Joette Katz, said the ruling affirms that teachers may not ridicule children based on their physical appearance and acknowledges the importance of her department’s role in investigating abusive behavior by educators.