In Hart v. State, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that paraprofessionals are subject to the same restrictions as “teachers” under Georgia’s sexual assault statute that prohibits sexual contact between teachers and their students.
At the time the allegations of sexual assault surfaced, Travis Demond Hart was employed as a paraprofessional at the same high school where the alleged victim was enrolled. Hart taught in a special needs class and assisted a certified teacher with daily classroom activities, including helping students with reading and math problems. Hart was also an assistant coach of both the track team and the football team.
Although disputed by Hart, the State argued that in his role as a paraprofessional, Hart had the same supervisory and disciplinary authority over students as a teacher.
On appeal, Hart argued that since he was employed as a paraprofessional, he is not considered a “teacher” under Georgia law and thus shouldn’t be subject to the sexual assault statute. This issue required the Georgia Court of Appeals to interpret the statutory language of O.C.G.A. § 16-6-5.1 (b)(1) which provides that “[a] person who has supervisory or disciplinary authority over another individual commits sexual assault” when one party is a teacher, principal, or other administrator and the other party is a student enrolled at the same school.
When analyzing the statute to determine if it applied to Hart, the Court looked to the plain, ordinary meaning of the word “teacher.” The Court found that a “paraprofessional” can reasonably be deemed to be a “teacher” under the statute as long as that person has the same supervisory and disciplinary authority as a teacher. The Court felt that treating these two positions as distinct under the statute would contravene the legislature’s intent to make it illegal for an authoritative school professional to have sexual contact with a younger, more vulnerable student.
Hart argued that courts should refrain from expanding the reach of penal statutes when their language is plain and unambiguous. Doing so in this case can arguably result in a judicial expansion of the term “teacher” beyond what was intended by the legislature.
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