(CN) – A special-needs teacher whose aide allegedly force-fed a child to the point of choking is not protected from legal action by public official immunity, the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled.
William and Suzanne Farrell claimed that their son, Sean, was physically and emotionally abused by teacher’s assistant Jane Wohlers. The Farrells claimed that Wohlers force-fed Sean to the point of choking, yelled at him and used abusive language, pulled his hair while washing his face, and scared him with a stuffed animal to keep him on his mat for naptime.
Other parents raised similar complaints about Wohlers’ behavior, stating that she also pinched the students under their arms, stuffed food into their mouths while holding them in a headlock, and made lewd sexual remarks around them.
One aide reported that Wohlers said, “I can say whatever I want because these kids can’t talk, so they can’t tell their parents.”
Sean was hospitalized for eight days with a severe, food-related anxiety disorder and he had to eat through a feeding tube for six months.
The Farrells sued Wohlers, the school board and classroom teacher Donna Garvin. The trial court denied Garvin’s motion for summary judgment on the claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress and federal civil rights violations.
Garvin appealed, stating that she is protected by immunity on the state and federal claims. She cited precedent cases involving other public employees, but the appeals court agreed with the trial court that she is not covered by immunity by the other employees.
“Defendant contends that if animal control officers, prison guards, and social workers are public officials, surely teachers are as well,” Judge Jackson wrote. “We disagree because there is a clear statutory basis for the grant of public official immunity in two of the three cases.”