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Commonwealth v. Lambert

Supreme Court of Virginia

December 15, 2016



          PRESENT: Lemons, C.J., Goodwyn, Mims, McClanahan, Powell, and Kelsey, JJ., and Lacy, S.J.



         In this appeal, we consider whether the Court of Appeals erred in reversing a school teacher's misdemeanor conviction for assault and battery of a special needs student.


         Heather Hogston Lambert ("Lambert") was tried by the Circuit Court of Scott County ("trial court") upon an indictment charging assault and battery of a child in violation of Code § 18.2-57. At the conclusion of a bench trial, Lambert was found guilty and sentenced to 30 days in jail with all 30 days suspended.

         The evidence at trial proved that Lambert was a preschool special education teacher for Scott County Public Schools at Shoemaker Elementary School ("Shoemaker"). On January 10, 2013, Lambert was on "bus duty" outside Shoemaker when a school bus arrived carrying K.M., an eleven-year-old student with Downs Syndrome. Lambert was not one of K.M.'s teachers, and she had no knowledge of K.M.'s individualized education plan.

         A teacher's aide, Tina Williams ("Williams"), testified that she met K.M. at the bus dropoff area in front of the school. As K.M. stepped off the bus, she handed Williams her backpack and blanket. K.M. then "ran, scampered up the sidewalk" away from Williams and toward the school building. Williams testified that "less than a minute" later, she observed Lambert pull K.M. out of the school building by her arm. Williams stated that Lambert "called to me to come and help her and I ignored her at first." Williams explained that "I really didn't want to get involved . . . Because I thought what [Lambert] was doing was wrong."

         Williams further testified that as K.M. stepped off the bus she was "very happy" and "the best I had seen her all year." On prior occasions, upon arrival at school Williams would hold K.M.'s belongings until all other students had been dropped off, at which time Williams would either give K.M. her belongings or send K.M. "back out there" to retrieve the items. On cross-examination, Williams admitted that K.M. was "a stubborn little girl." However, Williams did not believe that K.M. needed to be disciplined or "have some sort of a teaching moment" as a consequence of leaving her backpack with Williams.

         In a surveillance video of the event played at trial, K.M. was seen exiting a school bus and walking under a breezeway into the school building. Lambert followed K.M. into the school and walked back out holding K.M. by the arm. As the two walked toward the street, K.M. resisted and Lambert pulled her forward by the wrist. K.M. continued to resist Lambert as the pair moved down the sidewalk. On three occasions, Lambert stopped as K.M. bent at the waist and Lambert pulled K.M. by her wrist. When they stopped for a third time, the video showed Williams carrying K.M.'s coat and backpack and walking to where Lambert and K.M. were standing.

         In her role as a therapeutic day treatment counselor for Family Preservation Services, Renda Keith ("Keith") interacted with K.M. on a daily basis at Shoemaker. Keith testified that K.M. often handed her backpack to Williams or another aide to indicate that it contained a note from K.M.'s mother or that "there's something in that backpack for us . . . to see." Like Williams, Keith also observed that K.M. "was in a good mood" and was "bouncing and grinning" when she first came through the school doors that morning. However, Keith testified that Lambert "ran" through the lobby and "was loud and screaming at [K.M.] . . . to go outside . . . to get her book bag." "And then, [Lambert] got [K.M.] outside - pulling her outside." Keith stated that "I just didn't want [K.M.] to be pulled on, " but Keith said she had been trained not to intervene in a teacher-student "power struggle" unless the teacher requested assistance. Both Williams and Keith testified that, after the incident, K.M. was upset, crying, had red marks on her arms, and "kept saying she wanted to go home."

         Joseph Reed ("Reed"), also a counselor for Family Preservation Services, was talking with Keith in the front lobby of the school building when K.M. first came inside. Reed testified that Lambert looked "angered and agitated" as she "forcefully entered the school" and yelled at K.M., "[about] something [having] to do with [K.M.'s] coat and book bag." When Lambert confronted K.M. just outside the cafeteria, Reed testified that:

[K.M.] was initially defiant. She became more and more upset as the situation progressed. She began crying, and screaming, and struggling, and attempted to sit down onto the floor to keep from being physically moved.

         Reed stated that "there was a short struggle, and [Lambert] was eventually able to drag [K.M.] out of the school."

         Stacy Wood ("Wood"), the assistant principal at Shoemaker, also testified for the Commonwealth at trial. The trial court qualified Wood, over Lambert's objections, as an expert witness in childhood special education to discuss the "appropriate techniques for escorting or prompting special needs children in the educational setting." Based on the surveillance video footage, Wood testified that Lambert did not employ the proper escorting technique. Wood explained that Scott County teachers are trained to use the "handle with care technique, " which involves lifting a child by picking her up under her arms.

         The Commonwealth also offered into evidence a May 17, 2012 letter from the Scott County School Board to Lambert. The letter, sent to Lambert as a "disciplinary measure" several months before the incident with K.M., instructed Lambert to "please use your teaching assistants in the room when disciplining a child. You should not put your hands on a student unless it is for instruction or for the safety of a child." Lambert objected to the relevance of the letter, but the trial court overruled her objection on the basis that Lambert would not be covered by the statutory school ...

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