Teachers should avoid physical contact with students. The law allows it, within limits, but going beyond those limits risks criminal and civil penalties. Much will depend on the teacher’s state of mind.
Physical Contact As Criminal Assault
Unwanted physical contact can be criminal assault. By Connecticut statute a person commits assault when they cause physical injury, either intentionally or recklessly. A person in control of their feelings, in a proper state of mind, would do neither.
A different criminal statute allows teachers to use some force short of assault. Since they have a duty to protect and keep order, at some times the law allows them to make reasonable physical contact. They may make it to protect themselves or their students from immediate physical injury. They may make it to protect property. They may make it to take it away a weapon or drugs To keep order they may make it to hold or move a student. For all of these, however, physical injury to the student may indicate an unreasonable use of force.
Physical Contact As Civil Assault
Civil law defines assault the same way but adds another risk. Civil assault is not just physical contact that causes physical injury. It can be physical contact that causes offence. A student can sue if a teacher made unreasonable contact that physically offended them. Again, a judge or jury would look at whether the teacher meant to use more force than needed to keep order or protect.
School districts generally stand behind their teachers. Those that act in the course of their duties will be defended in civil suits. If a jury awarded damages against a teacher, the district could indemnify them. But if teacher acted wantonly, recklessly or maliciously, the district would likely wash it hands of the matter.
Physical contact of a sexual nature carries extreme risk. For any teacher in public schools in Connecticut, ‘moral misconduct’ with a student is a ground for dismissal under the Teacher Tenure Act. Even one incident of unwanted contact could create a hostile environment of sexual harassment in the classroom. Failure to address that environment would open the district to a lawsuit under Title IX.
Corporal punishment is also a form of contact. It is legal in eighteen states and making a comeback in Missouri. While the United States Constitution does not forbid it in Connecticut, no district allows it.
The Bottom Line
When not made reasonably, physical contact can only hurt a teacher. Connecticut law follows the notion that a professional teacher controls their feelings when in charge of children or teens. To act otherwise suggests that the person should not have charge of a classroom in the first place.
If you are a student, and a teacher has made unreasonable contact with you, call or write education attorney Gregory Smith to see what action you can take.
If you are a teacher, contact school lawyer Gregory Smith to consult about your options.