A former kindergarten teacher accused of thumping an autistic student in the forehead to get him to stop “playing with himself” in her classroom has been found not guilty by a jury.
Meredith Leigh Burgess testified in an Arlington courtroom Wednesday that she only tapped the 5-year-old boy on the forehead, after seeing him “masturbating” by touching his clothed groin area and rocking back and forth
“I did it to remind him that’s something we don’t do,” Burgess testified.
Burgess said the student cried after she tapped him, but stopped touching himself.
Prosecutor Sean Hawk, an assistant city attorney in Arlington, asked Burgess if she was annoyed by the student’s behavior.
“It didn’t annoy me,” she said. “It just wasn’t appropriate.”
She said other students in the Hill Elementary classroom could see what he was doing and that his behavior was disruptive.
A teacher’s assistant, Amy Fisher, had alerted school administrators to the Nov. 10 incident.
Fisher testified Wednesday that Burgess thumped the student on the head “because she didn’t like what he was doing.”
Fisher said the student, who is autistic and non-verbal, was touching his clothed groin area and “wasn’t hurting himself or anyone else.”
The school placed Burgess on leave and began an investigation. Arlington police later issued Burgess a citation charging her with assault by offensive contact, a Class C misdemeanor punishable by up to a $500 fine.
Burgess resigned from the district but fought the citation in court Wednesday morning.
The jury deliberated less than 30 minutes before returning its verdict.
If she’d simply paid the ticket or been found guilty, “the collateral consequence is she would have her teacher’s certificate revoked,” said Lex Johnston, Burgess’ attorney.
Because Burgess had acknowledged she had tapped the student on the forehead, the jury had to decide whether the physical contact was justified under Texas law.
In his closing argument Hawk told jurors that “we know there was physical contact and we know he found it offensive.”
“But there is no evidence” that his behavior was disrupting the class, Hawk said.
Johnston said in his closing argument that the student’s behavior was not appropriate and was disruptive.
“I don’t know what it is, but some of us are fascinated with what’s down there,” Johnston said, reiterating that the child was “playing with himself.”
Johnston said the law allows a teacher to use force to the degree that she reasonably believes it is necessary to maintain discipline in a group.
He told jurors that teachers were being dragged into courtrooms for doing their jobs.
“Come on, what are we doing to our teachers,” Johnston told jurors. “We’re bringing teachers to court for trying to maintain some discipline in a classroom.”
After the trial, Burgess said she felt vindicated.
“I resigned because they weren’t going to let me back in the classroom,” she said, talking about Arlington school district officials.
She’s now working as an office administrator and expecting a child, and is unsure if she’d like to teach again.
“But I at least want the option,” she said.
Lee Williams contributed to this report.