A state judge has concluded that the Broward County School District should not have fired a teacher who was accused of choking a student.
The defendant, 56-year-old Ava Williams, was fired last June from her job as a third-grade teacher at Watkins Elementary School in Pembroke Park.
Last week, Administrative Law Judge John Van Laningham recommended that the district reinstate her with back pay.
Williams, who has worked for the district for 21 years, made about $65,000 a year when she was dismissed.
A district complaint alleged that in September of 2018, a male student in Williams’ class slammed his chair against his desk, and she “proceeded to grab [him] around the neck and choke him,” while yelling, “Do you hear me!’”
The boy, referred to in the report by his initials P.P., also accused Williams of calling him a “lying, fat pig” when he and his mother reported the teacher to the school’s assistant principal.
Van Laningham writes, “To begin with — and this is undisputed — P.P. is a liar,” the judge wrote. “That is a harsh word, ‘liar,’ one that the undersigned does not use lightly, especially with reference to a child witness. But here it is an accurate description. P.P. admitted under oath that he tells lies quite often, including to teachers. He has lied to get other students in trouble, among other things.”
In addition, the judge says the child’s story makes no sense and does not describe choking.
The boy claimed that on the morning of the alleged incident, Williams lined up her students to walk them to lunch, but required the boy to stay behind, according to the report.
It states, “According to P.P., after everyone else had left, Williams stood in front of him and touched his throat with her open hand for one second, never squeezing, pushing, or making any movement at all — nor causing any pain — before withdrawing.”
Williams’s account was more believable, according to the judge. The teacher says that she instructed the children to clean up for lunch, but the boy sat at his desk and refused to move. Another student said something that angered P.P., and he pushed a chair into the other student.
“Without touching P.P., Williams raised her voice and said to him loudly, “Do you hear me now?” She instructed the other students to leave for lunch and began walking toward the door herself. P.P. followed Williams and then exited the classroom ahead of his teacher, who had waited at the door for him. At this point, the incident was over,” the judge explains.
The district’s only other witness was fellow Watkins teacher Shawony Russell, who testified that Williams confided to her that she choked the boy. The judge did not believe that account, since the teachers are not close friends.
“Why on earth would Williams tell someone whom she had no particular reason to trust that she had choked a student — a gratuitous confession that could have ruinous consequences, including potentially a criminal prosecution?” the judge asks. “Stranger things happen, of course, but the odds are against an unsolicited, unexpected admission of this nature.”
The judge goes on to say that Russell did not seem concerned about the allegation and did not report it to Child Protective Services.
“Wouldn’t you feel the need to report this potential child abuse to appropriate authorities for investigation, right away? Ms. Russell didn’t. Ms. Russell did not take any immediate action because ‘we were heading out to recess. I like to go outside and get my sun and just relax,’” the judge writes. “Promptly going outside to relax in the sun and forget the matter is not the response one reasonably would expect from a teacher whose coworker has just confessed to choking a student.”
On the other hand, Williams testified that she told Russell that the boy is a liar “because he said I choked him.”
The judge’s recommendation is non-binding, and the Broward School Board still needs to vote on whether to accept it. In most cases, the School Board upholds the judge’s decision.
“I’m happy to see we were able to come up with definitive proof to show these were false allegations,” says Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, which represented Williams. ”I’m happy to see in some form or fashion there’s actual due process in the system.”