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DA: Mesa Middle School teacher arrested on suspicion of child abuse won't be charged

Mesa Middle
Posted at 8:58 AM, May 10, 2023

Charges will not be filed against an Arroyo Grande middle school teacher arrested on suspicion of child abuse last month.

San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow on Wednesday announced that after reviewing investigative reports, photos and body worn camera footage, his office determined “there is insufficient evidence to file criminal charges” against Mesa Middle School teacher Sarah Watts, 42.

She was arrested April 25 on campus by the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office. Sheriff’s officials said Watts pulled a hairbrush out of a 13-year-old student's hand, which caused visible injuries to the student, according to a press release. A few minutes later, sheriff's officials say Watts started throwing papers and the same student suffered a cut on her temple.

“A comprehensive review of all the available evidence supports that the actions of Ms. Watts in removing the hairbrush from the student’s hand was of the same degree of physical force or control that a parent would be legally privileged to exercise under the circumstances. It is apparent that several students in the classroom were unruly and this specific student’s brushing of their hair was disrupting the teacher’s ability to maintain a proper and appropriate environment conducive to learning,” the DA’s Office said in a press release, citing California Education Code section 44807.

The DA’s Office says that section “requires every public school teacher to hold students to a strict account for their conduct and prohibits criminal prosecution of a teacher who exercises the degree of physical control over a student that a parent is entitled to use:

‘Every teacher in the public schools shall hold students to a strict account for their conduct on the way to and from school, on the playgrounds, or during recess. A teacher, vice principal, principal, or any other certificated employee of a school district, shall not be subject to criminal prosecution or criminal penalties for the exercise, during the performance of his duties, of the same degree of physical control over a student that a parent would be legally privileged to exercise but which in no event shall exceed the amount of physical control reasonably necessary to maintain order, protect property, or protect the health and safety of students, or to maintain proper and appropriate conditions conducive to learning. The provisions of this section are in addition to and do not supersede the provisions of Section 49000.’ California Education Code § 44807”

The DA’s Office goes on to say in Wednesday’s press release that the injuries alleged to have occurred in the classroom during the reported incident “are very minimal and if they did occur during the incident are consistent with an accidental scratching during the removal of the hairbrush as described by Ms. Watts,” adding that the four other students in the classroom at the time were interviewed by personnel with the sheriff’s office and did not describe seeing the incident.

“The allegation that Ms. Watts dropped or threw paperwork in the direction of the student resulting in a paper cut to her temple likewise does not warrant filing of criminal charges. The investigation substantiates that Ms. Watts did not intend the paperwork to hit the student when it was either dropped or thrown. The student themself stated that they did not believe Ms. Watts intended to injure them during the incident. Other students present in the classroom corroborated this description. Further, the minimal scratch observed in the photos of the student appeared to be superficial,” the press release stated.

Dow’s office says there is “insufficient evidence” to conclude the injuries alleged to have happened from the two incidents were cause by the teachers’ actions.

“Of great significance to our analysis of the cause of the injuries were video recorded statements of the student’s father who commented to his daughter at the scene that he thought the scratch near her temple was from a separate incident occurring the day before and that the scratches on the student’s two fingers appeared to be “old,” the press release stated, continuing, “Finally, even if Ms. Watts’s conduct was not permissible under above referenced Education Code section 44807, the resulting minor injuries do not appear to have been intentionally caused and do not rise to the level of injury typically treated as criminal conduct. Ms. Watts’s conduct is subject to review by the school and district administration and is more appropriately addressed through the administrative process.”

An email sent to members of the Lucia Mar Unified Teachers Association following the incident called the actions of the sheriff’s office “egregious,” while also saying the year “has brought unprecedented levels of defiance and disruption” in the classroom. KSBY reached out to the teachers association for comment on Wednesday but has not yet heard back.

The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Office released the following statement to KSBY on Wednesday following the DA's filing decision:

 The Sheriff’s Office made a lawful arrest based on the circumstances of the situation at that time. When a child has an injury caused by an adult, we have an obligation to take action. We filed those charges with the District Attorney’s Office. The District Attorney’s Office has made its decision and we accept that decision. We have no further comment at this time.

The Lucia Mar Unified School District is conducing its own investigation and says Watts remains on administrative leave.

We appreciate the District Attorney's decision not to escalate the incident into a criminal matter. Lucia Mar Unified School District's investigation remains ongoing.

Walsh declined to comment on the matter on Wednesday.