September 21, 2009
By Jon Murray | Indystar
A former Perry Township teacher accused of twice striking a disabled student asked a judge Monday to dismiss his felony battery charges.
Thomas E. Cripe’s attorneys cited Indiana’s corporal punishment protections for educators, spelled out in laws and court rulings dating to the 19th century that give teachers some leeway as long as it isn’t excessive or cruel.
But a prosecutor said comparisons to previous cases missed the point: Cripe’s student was a 20-year-old man with autism and severe mental retardation.
“This young man was anything but an average student, was anything but an average child,” Deputy Prosecutor Tom McLennon said during a hearing in Marion Superior Court.
Judge Marc Rothenberg said he would rule on the motion to dismiss charges by Sept. 29. If he denies the motion, Cripe will stand trial Oct. 7.
Cripe, 65, is now retired and plans to let his teaching license lapse, his attorneys said.
His 17-year career ended after accusations of two incidents days apart in August 2008 at RISE Learning Center, 5391 Shelby St. The school serves special-education students from Southside districts in pre-kindergarten through high school.
Prosecutors charged Cripe with two counts of battery, a Class D felony, each based on accusations that he struck the face of student Brent Mobley. The first incident took place during a diaper change in a bathroom, the second at a classroom table.
Both times, Cripe’s attorneys said, Mobley was unruly and struck the teacher first, and he responded with a light touch after verbal commands failed.
“Those two incidents do not rise to the level of a crime,” defense attorney Andrew Duncan said. “It is our contention that Mr. Cripe was trying to restore order to a classroom where there was a disruptive student.”
Perry Township Schools officials have said striking a student is never acceptable.
Many districts put such prohibitions into policy, but the Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed last year that teachers have some criminal immunity. A panel upheld the dismissal of a misdemeanor battery case against a Beech Grove High School physical education teacher accused of slapping a student.
Mobley’s mother, Mary Leiber, said she hoped Rothenberg would allow Cripe’s case to proceed to trial. Her son, who speaks in two- or three-word sentences, still refers to the incident, she said after the hearing.
Minutes earlier, she told the judge that a full year in Cripe’s room changed her active, energetic son. “He was always very loving,” Leiber said, “until this incident.”