Six months after Portal Elementary School physical education teacher James C. Parker pushed a playground ball onto a 10-year-old girl’s chest and uttered a profanity toward her after she accidentally kicked him, a judge found no cause for charges of cruelty to children.
Senior Judge Michael Karpf, retired from full-time service in the Chatham County Superior Court, presided at the Feb. 19 warrant application hearing in Bulloch County Magistrate Court. This was the second time the girl’s parent, represented by Statesboro lawyer Francys Johnson, sought a warrant for Parker related to the Aug. 28, 2019, incident. The first time, Bulloch County Probate Judge Lorna DeLoach held a hearing Dec. 6, also in Magistrate Court.
Based on a finding of probable cause during the hearing, DeLoach issued warrants for charges of terrorist threats, which is a felony, and simple battery, a misdemeanor. Parker was booked at the county jail. However, Ogeechee Circuit District Attorney Richard Mallard and Assistant District Attorney Catherine S. Findley dismissed the charges in Superior Court Jan. 13 for insufficient evidence and also noted that Bulloch County’s State Court solicitor had reviewed the case and declined to prosecute for the same reason.
Johnson and the first girl's mother then filed another warrant application Jan. 21, this time seeking a felony charge of cruelty to a child in the second degree. They were joined by the mother of a second girl, the first girl's best friend, who sought a misdemeanor third-degree child cruelty warrant. This was based on the claim that Parker “intentionally allowed” her “to witness him commit simple battery” on the first girl, the warrant application stated.
After all witnesses were sworn in and sent out of the courtroom, Johnson called the first girl back in to testify. The child, now 11, wore a bow in her hair. Johnson asked her what happened between her and Parker.
“I was playing with my friend. I was on the ground playing with her and she accidentally pulled my hair and my leg went up and I kicked him in the knee,” the girl said.
She answered, “Yes, sir” when Johnson asked if her leg “accidentally came into contact with Mr. Parker.”
The friend she had been playing individually with was not the other girl who testified, but a different child in the class. Children had finished playing a class game of “hula hut” using balls like one that was identified in the courtroom. It was orange, considerably smaller than a basketball, with a crinkly surface. Karpf later noted that the example ball had the word “soft” printed on it.
Johnson asked the girl what happened next. She said she got up and was about to say she was sorry.
“And he said, ‘If you do that again I’ll drag your A-word out of here,’” the girl said.
Johnson said he wouldn’t ask her to use profanity but spelled out a-s-s and asked if that was the word she meant.
“Yes sir,” she said.
She testified that Parker “was very angry and mean looking” at the time. She said, “Yes, sir,” when Johnson asked if the teacher had raised his voice and shouted, “Yes, sir,” to whether she was afraid of him at that point, and “No, sir,” to whether anyone had ever spoken to her that way before.
“As I tried to get up he took a ball and pushed it into my chest. …,” she also testified.
“It knocked me back,” she said.
She said, “Yes, sir” when Johnson asked if she experienced any pain.
At times during her testimony, she sobbed a little and held a tissue to her eyes.
Johnson also had her demonstrate, with the one in the courtroom, how the teacher had pushed the ball into her chest Aug. 28. She said he held the ball in both hands.
Parker sent her to sit on the gym stage and spoke to her afterward. He told her, “I might be the biggest person in here, but things like that still hurt me,” she testified.
When she arrived in the next class, the teacher there saw her shaking and asked her if she was OK, she said. The teacher and a classmate told other teachers and staff members.
A little later in the hearing, the second girl testified that she had been a few feet away. She also used “the A-word” to describe what Parker said to her friend, and her description of what he did with the ball was similar.
Ellen Schoolar, Parker’s attorney from the Savannah firm Lowe & Schoolar, cross-examined each of Johnson’s witnesses.
The first girl said “No ma’am,” when Schoolar asked if she had fallen down on the ground when Parker shoved the ball at her. “No, ma’am” was also her answer to whether she’d had any bruises.
“Did you tell Mr. Parker that your chest was hurting?” Schoolar asked. “No, ma’am,” the girl answered, and said “No,” when asked if Parker had encouraged her not to report the incident.
She had told the teacher in the next class she was not OK. But when two other teachers joined in talking to her, the student told the three teachers about what Parker said, but not about the ball, and did not indicate that she was injured or hurting, she said in answer to Schoolar.
When PES Principal Dr. Carolyn Vasilatos talked to her about it, the student again did not tell her that Parker had pushed a ball into her chest or that she was injured in any way, the girl testified.
“I was nervous,” she said. “I didn’t want to talk about it. I just kind of wanted to go home.”
She said she did tell PES counselor Takayla Brown about the incident with the ball, but not that she was hurting.
“She seemed very upset. She had been crying,” Brown testified. “At that point she wasn’t crying anymore. She was breathing heavy.”
Brown said she talked to the student to calm her down first, and when she asked her if she was hurt, she said she was OK. Brown also said that Parker had been upset and remorseful and had apologized.
The girl said she did tell her mother she was hurting when she got in her car to go home that day.
But the girl also testified that she never took any medication for pain and never saw a doctor for any physical injury. She did receive emotional counseling, seeing a counselor every two weeks starting in November, she testified. Schoolar noted that this was almost three months after the incident.
Johnson attempted to call Parker to testify, but Karpf would not allow it. Johnson noted that Parker had testified at the first hearing in December, and argued that rules are different in a magistrate proceeding than in Superior Court.
Portal Elementary’s school resource officer who is a Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office deputy, later filed a report about the incident stating he was informed of it Sept. 9. He was not present for the recent hearing.
School staff members had also taken written statements from the first girl and some other students, but not from the second girl. School officials reported that they had notified the Department of Family and Children Services, but Bulloch County DFCS Director Diane Hardee said, “No sir,” when Johnson asked if, to her knowledge, the department had investigated this matter.
Vasilatos testified that the school system’s Human Resources Department had reported the incident to the state Professional Standards Commission. The PSC reportedly did not take any action.
Instead of calling any additional witnesses of her own, Schoolar, after three hours of the hearing and then a lunch break, asked the judge to deny the warrants immediately on the basis of what he had already heard.
She noted that the law requires an intentional act or criminal negligence that causes a child “cruel or excessive physical or mental pain.” But the testimony was that Parker was reacting to pain himself, she said.
“I think even if their statements are accurate, the conduct alleged does not rise to the level of cruelty to children,” Schoolar said.
The judge agreed. He described the ball as a “soft, squishy ball” and said he doubted “ass” is even profanity at this point.
"This whole thing has been blown out of proportion, in my opinion," Karpf said. "I don't disbelieve anything the child said. I don't believe crimes have been committed. Is there a school system issue? Maybe. I don't know; that's not for me to decide. But thank goodness, she didn't suffer any physical harm."