Criminal charges will not be filed against Mesa Middle School teacher Sarah Watts
Author: District Attorney
5/10/2023 8:00:00 AM
A Mesa Middle School math teacher who was arrested on campus by the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday, April 25, 2023 will not be charged. The incident was referred to the District Attorney’s Office with a recommendation to charge Ms. Watts with felony child abuse causing injury.
On April 27, 2023, the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office received a case referral involving allegations of child abuse alleged to have been committed by Mesa Middle School teacher Sara Louise Watts. After a comprehensive review of the applicable California law, investigative reports, photographs, and body worn camera footage, the District Attorney’s office has determined there is insufficient evidence to file criminal charges.
On April 25, 2023, Ms. Watts was arrested based on an allegation that she forcibly removed a hairbrush from the hand of a student who was brushing their hair during class and who did not comply with the teacher’s repeated demand that they put it away. This interaction allegedly resulted in scratches on two of the student’s fingers. It was also alleged that later in the class period Ms. Watts dropped or threw paper schoolwork towards the same student resulting in a paper cut to the student’s temple.
The arrest occurred on the Mesa Middle School campus by the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office on April 25, 2023, the same date the student reported the alleged abuse. The incident was referred to the District Attorney’s Office with a recommendation to charge Ms. Watts with felony child abuse causing injury.
California Education Code section 44807 requires every public school teacher to hold students to a strict account for their conduct and prohibits criminal prosecution of a teacher who exercises the degree of physical control over a student that a parent is entitled to use:
“Every teacher in the public schools shall hold students to a strict account for their conduct on the way to and from school, on the playgrounds, or during recess. A teacher, vice principal, principal, or any other certificated employee of a school district, shall not be subject to criminal prosecution or criminal penalties for the exercise, during the performance of his duties, of the same degree of physical control over a student that a parent would be legally privileged to exercise but which in no event shall exceed the amount of physical control reasonably necessary to maintain order, protect property, or protect the health and safety of students, or to maintain proper and appropriate conditions conducive to learning. The provisions of this section are in addition to and do not supersede the provisions of Section 49000.” California Education Code § 44807
A comprehensive review of all the available evidence supports that the actions of Ms. Watts in removing the hairbrush from the student’s hand was of the same degree of physical force or control that a parent would be legally privileged to exercise under the circumstances. It is apparent that several students in the classroom were unruly and this specific student’s brushing of their hair was disrupting the teacher’s ability to maintain a proper and appropriate environment conducive to learning.
Regarding the injuries alleged to have occurred during the hairbrush incident, they are very minimal and if they did occur during the incident are consistent with an accidental scratching during the removal of the hairbrush as described by Ms. Watts. All four other students present in the classroom and who were interviewed by Sheriff’s personnel did not describe seeing this incident.
The allegation that Ms. Watts dropped or threw paperwork in the direction of the student resulting in a paper cut to her temple likewise does not warrant filing of criminal charges. The investigation substantiates that Ms. Watts did not intend the paperwork to hit the student when it was either dropped or thrown. The student themself stated that they did not believe Ms. Watts intended to injure them during the incident. Other students present in the classroom corroborated this description. Further, the minimal scratch observed in the photos of the student appeared to be superficial.
Regarding the injuries alleged to have occurred during the two incidents there is insufficient evidence to conclude they were caused by Ms. Watts’ actions. Of great significance to our analysis of the cause of the injuries were video recorded statements of the student’s father who commented to his daughter at the scene that he thought the scratch near her temple was from a separate incident occurring the day before and that the scratches on the student’s two fingers appeared to be “old”.
Finally, even if Ms. Watts’s conduct was not permissible under above referenced Education Code section 44807, the resulting minor injuries do not appear to have been intentionally caused and do not rise to the level of injury typically treated as criminal conduct. Ms. Watts’s conduct is subject to review by the school and district administration and is more appropriately addressed through the administrative process.
Given the totality of the evidence and applicable law, the charge of child abuse causing injury in both the hairbrush incident and paperwork incident cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and the request to file criminal charges has been declined.
Please contact Assistant District Attorney Eric J. Dobroth at 805.781.5819 with any questions.
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