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Reversal of Parapro’s Sexual Assault Conviction Affirmed

December 14, 2016

In State v. Morrow, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ reversal of the defendant’s conviction for sexual assault on a student.

The Court, however, disagreed with the Court of Appeals’ reasoning as to what constitutes “supervisory or disciplinary authority” over the student.

The evidence at trial showed that the defendant was a paraprofessional at a high school. He accompanied a special needs student to classes where he met another student, with whom the defendant would later have sexual contact away from the school. The student was sixteen at the time. The defendant was convicted of sexual assault under O.C.G.A. § 16-6-5.1 which limits the applicability of the offense to one who is a “teacher, principal, assistant principal, or other administrator.”

The Court of Appeals reversed the conviction, reasoning that the statute required the accused to have “specific supervisory or disciplinary authority” over the student in question. The Court held that the State’s evidence was insufficient to establish that the defendant had such authority over this student.

The Supreme Court determined that the State could carry its burden of proving supervisory or disciplinary authority by evidence of specific or general authority. Applied here, the defendant, as a paraprofessional, had some general supervisory authority over other students in the class but did not have specific supervisory authority over the student in question. The Supreme Court noted that the evidence of the defendant’s general supervisory authority was scant but was enough that a jury could properly infer that the defendant had occasional or limited authority to direct students and enforce their compliance with school rules. It held that the Court of Appeals erred in reversing the conviction on these grounds.

However, the Supreme Court held that the State had failed to prove that the defendant was a “teacher, principal, assistant principal, or other administrator” and that the defendant’s conviction could not stand since the statute required the defendant to hold one of these specific positions. It noted that the statute specifically referred to teachers, not in a general way, but specifically. As a paraprofessional, the defendant did not act as a teacher. He did not assign work nor tests, nor give lectures, nor attend faculty meetings. At most, he occasionally answered questions for special needs students that almost any layperson could answer.

Thus, the Court held that the sexual assault statute simply did not apply to a paraprofessional such as the defendant. As a result, the Court affirmed the reversal of his conviction.

NOTE:  This decision was followed by a footnote in which the Court stated, “If the General Assembly desires to expand the scope of O.C.G.A. § 16-6-5.1 (b) (1) to include paraprofessionals (or other school employees such as bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and janitors), it certainly may do so by defining the persons to whom the statute applies in broader terms.” It seems evident that the legislature will likely respond by amending this statute in the next legislative session.

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