Student claims Malibu High teacher slapped her

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A 9th-grade student accused her teacher of slapping her in class two weeks ago while mimicking a scene from the movie “Bridesmaids.” Other sources say the incident has been mischaracterized and blown out of proportion.

By Darlene Ricker / Special to The Malibu Times

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is investigating allegations by the Malibu High freshman who said her English teacher publicly slapped her two weeks ago for not completing her homework.

Dionne Evans, 15, told KTLA-TV in an interview that aired Tuesday that she was sitting at her desk on May 22 when her English teacher, Jennifer Gonzales, walked over and struck her half a dozen times in the face. Gonzales was purportedly mimicking a scene from the movie “Bridesmaids,” in which a character attempts to “slap some sense” into another.

“I was in shock,” Evans told KTLA, waving her hands back and forth in a repeated slapping motion as she described the alleged incident. “I was scared, humiliated, embarrassed, like I didn’t know what to do with myself, like I had so many emotions that when she walked away I just wanted to cry.”

The Special Victims Unit of the Sheriff’s Department confirmed it is investigating the alleged incident as a child abuse matter because it involves a claim of physical touching of a minor.

Representatives for Malibu High and the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District declined comment. Sources with knowledge of the incident have told The Malibu Times that reports of the incident have been mischaracterized and blown out of proportion.

Evans’ attorney, Donald Karpel of Beverly Hills, told The Malibu Times that while the criminal investigation proceeds he intends to seek civil remedies. Under California law, an administrative claim must be pursued against the school district before a civil lawsuit can be filed. Karpel has six months in which to take that initial step but said he expects to file an administrative claim within the next week.

Karpel acknowledged that Gonzales wrote a letter of apology to Evans, which he said stated: “I want to tell you how truly sorry I am. My intention was never to hurt you or embarrass you. Rather, I was trying to reach out to you and help you focus on your school work and motivate you. Even though I thought my intentions were honorable, they did not come out that way and for that I am so very sorry. Please know that I feel terrible about causing you pain and would like the opportunity to make it right.”

Nonetheless, said Karpel, Gonzales “crossed the line by physically touching [Evans]. That makes it a simple battery.”

The legal definition of battery is a harmful or offensive touching of another person. “It can be the slightest touching,” said Darrell York, a retired police officer and Los Angeles area criminal defense attorney. Battery, he explained, can range from spitting in someone’s face to throwing a drink at him to viciously beating a person.

When told that some have questioned whether Evans was physically touched, Karpel replied, “We have [evidence of] redness and stinging on the cheeks. That doesn’t happen without touching.”

Karpel said he also has witnesses-presumably a classroom of them, although to date Evans’ classmates have been reticent to talk to the media. Initial news reports stated that Gonzales brought Evans to the front of the classroom, asked her whether she had seen the film “Bridesmaids” and then slapped her. Karpel, however, said the alleged incident took place “near the back of the room, and the kids seated around [Evans] saw it.”

While Gonzales continues to teach the class, Evans is completing her course work in the school library. Some have questioned why Gonzales has not been placed on administrative leave pending the investigation. However, as York noted, Gonzales has due process rights to her job and the allegations against her are at present just that-allegations.

“It makes sense for the student to be doing her work in the library and for the rest of the class to continue,” said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson. “It’s late in the term, and it would be disruptive to the students to bring in a substitute teacher,” she explained.

Levenson, a former prosecutor, noted that Gonzales has apologized and tried to explain her actions. “A teacher shouldn’t slap a student, but not everything that is inappropriate is criminal,” she said. She also pointed to Gonzales’ two-decade teaching career and noted that this “may be an isolated incident.”

Levenson said she saw “no indication [on the KTLA interview] that the child was injured” and considers it highly unlikely that a criminal charge will be filed. She said she considers it a matter “best left to the civil process” but raised the issue of damages, which must be proven to recover in a civil case. “Anyone can file a lawsuit for anything, but what happens after that is another question. What are the damages here?”

Karpel maintains that Evans has been physically and emotionally harmed. He described her as “humiliated and devastated” and said she is undergoing psychiatric treatment for post-traumatic stress. “At 15, this is not what she needs to be dealing with in her life at all,” he added.