A teacher and football coach in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania has been charged with the summary offenses of criminal mischief and harassment, arising from a March 25, 2014, incident in which Pennsylvania State Police allege that 45 year old Michael C. Smith shoved a student into the wall of his classroom, breaking a thermostat. Police allege that Mr. Smith became angry when a 16 year old male juvenile farted in his classroom. Mr. Smith has since been suspended by the school district. What is unclear from media reports is whether the juvenile did it on purpose or under what circumstances, but one of Smith’s supporters, who is a softball coach at another high school posted online “I guess the elephant in the room is, what do you do if a kid farted in your face?”
Harassment and criminal mischief are both summary offenses punishable by up to 90 days in jail and fines not to exceed $300. Harassment involves physically offensive touching, but without substantial pain or injuries characteristic of the more serious misdemeanor charge of simple assault. Criminal mischief entails intentionally or recklessly damaging or destroying property. Usually, only people with very bad prior records or who have engaged in egregious conduct receive jail time for summary offenses. In this case, Mr. Smith is probably far more worried about the effect these charges will have on his teaching career than any direct consequences from the legal system. Teachers can be fired over a summary offense conviction, as it generally violates the moral turpitude policies of most school districts. To make matters worse, the charges arose at school and a student is the alleged victim.
If the student did, in fact, provoke Mr. Smith’s reaction, then criminal charges and loss of his job seem completely inappropriate. Gone are the days when teachers and principals could physically quash student badasses with impunity, but perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. The handling of this case sends a wrong message to students. If a smartass brat provokes a teacher, then not only does the little smartass avoid detention or any repercussions, but the object of his torment is the one facing serious consequences. This situation just does not smell right, no pun intended. It is cases like this where you wish that a defendant had the right to a jury trial in a summary offense case. Let’s just hope that the magisterial district judge uses the same common sense we would expect from a jury.
Matt M. McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, Pennsylvania, who has handled a large number of summary offense cases. His father is a retired elementary school principal and his mother is a retired middle school social studies teacher. http://www.mattmlaw.com/Criminal-Defense-Overview/Summary-Offenses.shtml