After intervention by two different appellate courts, a teacher charged more than two years ago with having sex with students faces possible termination from Decatur City Schools and possible trial on criminal charges that had previously been dismissed.
Two different rulings by Morgan County Circuit Judge Glenn Thompson pertaining to 45-year-old DCS teacher Carrie Witt, one in a criminal case and the other in a civil case, were reversed by appellate courts.
In a decision posted Monday, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Thompson’s Aug. 10 ruling that dismissed two felony counts that she had sex with students under 19 years old. Both students were male, according to Decatur police, attended Decatur High and had been students in a class taught by Witt. One was 17 when the physical relationship started and the other was 18, according to police. Thompson had ruled the statute was unconstitutional as applied to Witt.
Nick Heatherly, one of Witt’s lawyers, said Monday that Witt is in the process of appealing the Criminal Court of Appeals' decision.
The ruling by the Criminal Court of Appeals also reversed a decision by Thompson dismissing sex-with-student charges against David Solomon, 28, who was a contract teacher at Falkville High School. He was fired by the company he worked for after his March 29, 2016, arrest. The appellate court remanded both cases to the Morgan County Circuit Court.
Thompson last week, abiding by a June 22 order of the state Supreme Court, lifted his injunction that had prevented DCS from initiating disciplinary proceedings against Witt. She has been on administrative leave with full pay and benefits since the charges were filed.
Superintendent Michael Douglas said Monday he has tentatively scheduled a due process hearing for Witt on Aug. 14, the earliest date possible under the Students First Act.
The 2011 law replaced the state’s tenure law and requires the school system to give tenured employees advance notice before holding termination hearings, said a spokeswoman with the Alabama Association of School Boards.
Since placing her on leave, the school district has spent more than $128,000 on salary and benefits for Witt. She received a 4 percent raise during the 2016-17 academic year that increased her annual salary to $52,060, school records show.
If her contract is not terminated before Oct. 1, she will receive a second raise of $1,270 because the Legislature last session authorized a statewide 2.5 percent increase for teachers and support workers to be paid from the Education Trust Fund.
Witt, who was assigned to teach U.S. government, economics, International Baccalaureate psychology and 12th-grade International Baccalaureate history at Decatur High, was arrested March 21, 2016.
In November 2016, former DCS Superintendent Dan Brigman scheduled a termination hearing for Witt, but her attorneys successfully argued that holding the hearing before the board while criminal charges were pending would force Witt to choose between the “risk of self-incrimination if she testified” or “losing her teaching contract if she did not,” according to court documents.
Thompson on Feb. 28, 2017, issued an injunction preventing the board from taking any action against Witt. Attorneys for the school district appealed his ruling and the state Supreme Court last month ordered Thompson to lift his injunction. He did so Wednesday, although the court file he sealed remains concealed from the public.
Thompson’s ruling that the sex-with-student law was unconstitutional concluded it was overly broad.
"This Court acknowledges that a disparity of power may inherently exist in a teacher/student relationship, but it clearly does not exist between every school employee and every student regardless of where the student is enrolled," Thompson wrote. "By eliminating the requirement that the state show a position of authority, grooming, abuse, coercion, or lack of consent, the state criminalizes behaviors outside the state's legitimate purpose."
The state Attorney General’s Office appealed the ruling, and lawyers for Witt and Solomon argued that the state has no legitimate interest in regulating consensual sexual acts. They also argued the law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution “in that it criminalizes a personal relationship between two consenting parties that is not criminalized between other similarly situated parties.”
The Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that Thompson’s order was in error because the burden of proving the law was unconstitutional should have been placed on the defendants, and they failed to meet that burden.
“Moreover,” according to the appellate court, “there exists a legitimate state interest in prohibiting intimate contact between a teacher and a student.”
The court quoted a Kansas court decision upholding the constitutionality of a similar law.
“Teachers have constant access to students, often in an unsupervised context,” the Kansas court ruled. “Thus, teachers are in a unique position to groom or coerce students into exploitive or abusive conduct. It is uncontestable that the state must provide a safe school environment for students, which includes preventing the sexual exploitation of students.”
The same reasoning applied to this case, according to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals.
“The state had a legitimate interest in prohibiting Solomon’s and Witt’s conduct and in protecting minor students from school employees’ sexual advances,” the court ruled.
Violation of the law prohibiting a teacher from having sex with a student under 19 is a Class B felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison, with a requirement that the convicted defendant register as a sex offender.