By Michele C. Hladik
The journals were used to fill time and give the students practice at creative writing, the district’s lawyer said.
COLUMBUS — A Youngstown city school teacher had an obligation under the law to report suspected child abuse of one of her students when he wrote of abuse in his class journal, attorney Joel Levin told the Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday.
According to Levin, the Ohio Revised Code and the “43-year history of the reporting statute” make it clear that if there is any suspicion of abuse, it should be uncovered.
“I think the fair interpretation of what the Legislature wanted to do is protect every child — every child, every which way,” Levin said.
The issue arises from the case of a Youngstown fourth-grader during the 1999-2000 school year who reportedly wrote in his creative writing journal about abusive situations at the hands of his mother and begged his teacher not to tell. Levin said the school acted only after the teacher had planned to give the journals to the child’s mother.
The boy, who is now 18, attended gifted and talented classes at West Elementary and was taught language arts by Helen Marino, a veteran teacher with the district.
The boy’s father, Donald Kraynak, filed suit against the district alleging Marino failed to report the incidents.
A jury found in favor of the district, but the 7th District Court of Appeals overturned the decision and remanded the case back to the trial court for a new trial based on problems with jury instructions. The case was then brought to the Ohio Supreme Court.
Youngstown attorney John Pfau represented the school district before the high court and argued the case is about the way the law is worded and changes to the law over the years. According to Pfau, current law favors and the jury is on the side of the teacher and the district.
“I think we have to look at the simple language here — knows or suspects,” Pfau said. “The way the statute is written is clear that it is a subjective standard.”
According to Pfau, the journals were used to fill time and give the students practice at creative writing. He said they weren’t meant to be graded or statements of history, but “exercises of fiction.”
“The teacher in that case looked at the journal and read it at least once,” he said. “Then she looked at all the circumstances and she did not in her mind believe she had a suspicion, so she did not report.
“The jury in the case had the ability to look at all the evidence, all the surrounding circumstances and then to determine the credibility of the witnesses and determine whether they believe she had a suspicion or not. And they decided they believed she did not.”
According to Levin, criminal liability uses a subjective standard, but civil liability uses an objective standard.
“So if someone is ignorant, inattentive or not all there, then we don’t hold them to criminal liability,” he said. “That’s not how we run the civil system.”
Justice Paul Pfeiffer questioned both attorneys on whether there was really more involved in the case.
“I’m wondering, whichever standard, could it be the jury felt the punishment they heard about was not abuse, it was corporal punishment of a child that was difficult and some parents believe in doing that and some don’t,” Pfeiffer said. “So that’s at least in the mix.”
Both attorneys agreed that could be the case.
“I believe that’s absolutely correct,” Pfau responded when the question was presented to him. “I believe the record did not show clear specific signs of abuse nor the magnitude of abuse.”
However, Levin expressed concern the jury’s answer was muddied. “That is entirely possible, however we’ll never know because they gave the wrong instructions,” Levin said.
He said the Ohio Supreme Court has said in the past that if the wrong instructions are given and the decision is uncertain, then the right instructions need to be given.
The district asked the high court to overturn the appellate court decision and uphold the trial court.
“I believe the case should be reversed in its entirety,” Pfau said.