by: Mike Petchenik Updated:
FULTON COUNTY, Ga. - A Fulton County judge has granted immunity to a former special education teacher accused of abusing students, but late Tuesday, the Fulton County District Attorney said he’s already filed an appeal.
Judge Henry Newkirk made his decision after hearing three days of testimony from people who witnessed Melanie Pickens' behavior during her time at Hopewell Middle School in Milton. Newkirk acknowledged the allegations, on their face, seemed horrible, but said Georgia law protected teachers who were disciplining students.
“Ms. Pickens did act in good faith in carrying out her teaching duties for her students,” Newkirk said as he issued his ruling.
In closing arguments, Pickens’ attorney B.J. Bernstein argued her client acted in good faith.
“These children experience extraordinary difficulties... but there have to be boundaries in place for the child's safety and safety of other students,” Bernstein argued.
Bernstein argued Pickens had some difficult, behaviorally-challenged kids in her class that required her to discipline them.
“It was done in good faith to prevent further chaos in the classroom,” Bernstein argued.
Assistant District Attorney Jay Hughes argued the immunity statute doesn’t apply to Pickens. She gave the example of a south Georgia assistant principal flogging a student for truancy, per a school policy. The student became injured because the paddle was warped, but the assistant principal was disciplining the student in good faith per policy.
“That’s what the statute is for, not for the egregious behavior of Ms. Pickens,” said Hughes.
Before closing arguments, Fulton County school paraprofessional Judy Massey testified that she found student Jake Marshall restrained in a special chair, covered in feces, after Pickens had ordered him isolated for “half the day” for disturbing the class.
When Massey confronted Pickens about what happened, she said Pickens said: “Oh, don't tell nobody.”
Massey previously pleaded the Fifth Amendment's protection against self-incrimination on the witness stand, but agreed to testify only after prosecutors announced they would not pursue criminal charges against her abuses. On the stand, Massey admitted she isolated student Aaron Hatcher, but said it was because Pickens told her to do so.
The judge previously heard testimony alleging Pickens screamed in students’ ears and pushed them up against lockers, but Massey testified about another alleged abuse.
“He was laying on the bean bag,” she said of Marshall. “She was sitting at her desk and he was making noise. She tossed the camera and it hit him on the head."
Massey said the impact left a “knot” on the boy’s head and that Pickens told her she would tell Marshall’s parents he had “hit his head on a bookshelf.”
After the hearing, the father of one student, Aaron Hatcher, called Georgia’s immunity statute “a loaded gun.”
“I want every parent out there, I want you all to stand, take a stand,” said Hatcher. “Don’t just drop your child off at a school, because if you drop your child off at a school, this is the end result.”
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard sent Petchenik a statement about his decision to appeal:
“We are deeply disappointed with the Judge’s decision to grant immunity to this defendant. However, we are not dismayed. Within minutes of his decision, we had drafted a notice of appeal, and, as of this writing, have already filed it with the Clerk’s office so it can be transmitted to the Georgia Court of Appeals.
It is interesting to note that prior to the presentation of evidence in this proceeding (perhaps foreshadowing his ultimate decision) Judge Newkirk, sua sponte, informed courtroom observers, including the victims’ parents, that he had previously granted immunity to a police officer accused of rape and that his decision was upheld.
Our hope is that once the case is reviewed, the Court of Appeals will give these children--defenseless, special needs students without a voice-- the justice they deserve.”