Teacher’s Testimony in Child Abuse Criminal Case Accepted

Pennsylvania law now includes teachers and other school employees as mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse.  A recent Ohio criminal case, which was appealed to the United States Supreme Court, provides important insight into when a teacher or other school employee may be called upon to testify about statements made to them by a minor student.

In Ohio v. Clark decided by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 18, 2015, L.P., a 3 year old child, was left by his mother in the care of her boyfriend, Darius Clark.  Teachers subsequently discovered red marks on L.P. and a bloodshot eye, both of which appeared to be signs of abuse.  The teachers questioned L.P. and he identified Clark as his abuser.

A grand jury indicted Clark on criminal counts of felonious assault, endangering children, and domestic violence.  At trial, the State introduced L.P.’s statements to his teachers as evidence of Clark’s guilt, but L.P. did not testify because the Court found that L.P. was not competent to testify due to his young age. Clark moved to exclude the teacher’s testimony about L.P.’s statements under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Stated simply, the Confrontation Clause provides that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to be confronted with the witnesses against him.”  Generally, the right is to have a face-to-face confrontation with witnesses in the form of cross-examination during a trial.

The Ohio Supreme Court agreed with Clark and excluded the teacher’s testimony “because the primary purpose of the teachers’ questioning was not to deal with an existing emergency but rather to gather evidence potentially relevant to a subsequent criminal prosecution.”  On appeal, the United States Supreme Court disagreed and permitted the teacher to testify because there was “no indication that the primary purpose of the conversation was to gather evidence for Clark’s prosecution.”  Instead, the teachers’ “first objective was to protect L.P.”  The U.S. Supreme Court pointed out that L.P.’s age supported the “conclusion” that the statements in question were not testimonial, noting that “[s]tatements by very young children will rarely, if ever, implicate the Confrontation Clause.”

The Supreme Court refused to adopt a rule that all statements to individuals who were not law enforcement officers would be permitted, but stressed “the fact that L.P. was speaking to his teachers remains highly relevant.”  The Supreme Court noted that “statements made to someone who is not principally charged with uncovering and prosecuting criminal behavior are significantly less likely to be testimonial than statements given to law enforcement officers. …It is common sense that the relationship between a student and his teacher is very different from that between a citizen and the police.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in this case is very important to school districts faced with a potential child abuse situation.  Any statement made by a student, especially of elementary age, to a teacher or other school employee that identifies an alleged child abuse perpetrator should be immediately shared with the police.  The teacher or other school employee could become a critical witness in the successful prosecution of the perpetrator.