A Florida teacher accused of child abuse in the fall of 2021 was vindicated after prosecutors dropped the charges against her last week.
The circumstances of the investigation were ironic: days after Caroline Lee was named “Teacher of the Year” by Darnell-Cookman School of the Medical Arts, Duval County law enforcement arrested and charged her for allegedly slapping a student in the face.
According to a police report filed at the time, Lee privately confronted a female student about threats the girl, who has never been named, posted online. The student said she didn’t post any such threats and Lee, police alleged, “reached across the table and struck her on her face with the heel of her palm” before repeatedly striking the girl on her head and shouting out expletives. The alleged slaps were said to have caused a nosebleed.
Now, the Duval County State Attorney’s Office, which declined to prosecute Lee, is casting doubt on basic aspects of that narrative.
According to prosecutors who dropped the charges, “it would have been extremely difficult for the Defendant to have struck the Victim in the face,” due to a size imbalance; Lee is 5’2″, and the girl is much taller.
A copy of the disposition statement clearing Lee’s name was obtained by independent, Jacksonville, Florida TV station WJXT.
“Even though the Victim appeared with blood present, the pictures do not prove beyond a reasonable doubt the blood resulted from a strike,” the court document reads. “The Defendant has been consistent in her denial of the account, and the physical size of the parties and description of events is consistent with her account. Additionally, the Defendant has a viable argument that the Victim reported the incident in an effort to avoid another disciplinary action from the school administration.”
As for the underlying reason the student and teacher met alone in the first place? The state’s attorney’s office sided with the teacher on that aspect of the dispute as well. According to WJXT, prosecutors uncovered that the student had, in fact, been posting threats against the teacher online in the days before the two met to discuss those very same messages, “including her wishes for Lee to die.”
The state’s attorney’s office also justified its decision to dismiss the case, which was repeatedly delayed for months and months, by noting that there was no video of the alleged incident, no witnesses to the alleged incident, and that Lee, who consistently maintained her innocence about the whole affair, passed a polygraph test.
While state law enforcement and state teaching authorities have given the teacher a clean bill of health, she can return to her teaching duties, just not back at the school where she spent almost eight years.
An agreement between the girl’s mother and an assistant state attorney reportedly precludes Lee from returning to teach at Darnell-Cookman, which revoked her formal accolade amidst the controversy.
Notably, school officials were quick to disavow the educator in statements to the media and students’ parents.
“I was in total shock and denial,” Lee recently told The Florida Times-Union. “One of the main reasons I want to speak out is because I’m terrified other teachers will be treated the way I was. There comes a time when we have to say enough is enough. My administration did not protect me, my other teachers did but were told to be quiet. The student went on to begin ninth grade. And I’m not allowed to return.”
“I’ve had the most wonderful career at Darnell Cookman,” she continued. “I love those students. I don’t think the principal (who has since left the school) knew how to deal with this. I’m not pointing fingers, but the system is broken. I really feel like my administrators did nothing to help me. I was guilty before proven innocent.”
The concept of race was brought into the nationwide news coverage due to the Instagram post threats in question allegedly stemming from a discussion – and eventually heated dispute – about whether it is acceptable to teach John Steinbeck by referring to the text of the classic novella, “Of Mice and Men,” specifically, the n-word. Both Lee and the student at the center of the allegations are white.
“[T]here is no racial element,” Lee told the Times-Union.
Lee, during a wide-ranging interview with journalist Emily Bloch, also had some choice words for the police officers who interrogated her and penned the report that marred her name.
According to the teacher, a Jacksonville Sheriff’s officer “put words in her mouth” and made her sign various forms without explanation. As for the alleged proof of the child’s injury, Lee said, the officer showed her a picture of the student with a bloody nose, but the absolved teacher insists she never saw the student without her mask on.
“Maybe she went to the bathroom and set something up,” Lee suggested during the interview. “It was also Halloween [weekend], so kids had funny things, fake blood, fake scars, all sorts of things.”
After that, Lee, who is an observant Jewish woman, was taken handcuffed to the jail where she spent the night on the Sabbath – while reportedly being charged $26 for a ham sandwich she couldn’t eat.
One detail of the police report was particularly grating.
The arresting officer wrote that Lee walked “aggressively” with the student for their meeting.
“I’m an athlete,” she told the Times-Union. “I walk fast everywhere. Some of my students who saw that detail told me, ‘Ms. Lee, they just don’t know you.'”
[image via Duval County Public Schools/Instagram]
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