ROXBURY, NJ – A former Roxbury teacher’s aide, who held a 6-year-old special needs student upside down last year because he was misbehaving in class, was acquitted Wednesday of a petty disorderly person offense related to the matter.
The woman, Shannon Rooney, stood trial before Roxbury Municipal Court Judge Ira Cohen on a harassment charge, specifically “offensive touching.” The judge issued the verdict after hearing testimony from another school aide who witnessed the incident.
Cohen said that while Rooney did lift the child off the floor after threatening to “hang him by his toes” if he didn’t stop acting up, her actions did not rise to the level of criminal behavior warranting a conviction. In fact, the judge said it “seemed like the defendant was acting in a manner that was kind and gentle … attempting to engage the student” who was refusing to behave.
That comment, made shortly before Cohen announced his verdict, prompted the child’s mother, Kimberly Yamashita of Landing, to storm out of the courtroom in anger. Earlier in the trial, she was warned by the judge to keep quiet after she accused Roxbury Municipal Prosecutor Douglas Cabana of failing to ask more probing questions of the witnesses.
Yamashita, who sued the school district over the incident and accepted a $100,000 settlement in September, believes school and law enforcement officials downplayed the seriousness of the case to save face.
Not Worthy of a Grand Jury
The petty disorderly person’s charge was filed against Rooney after the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office – citing insufficient evidence - refused to pursue more serious charges.
The incident took place March 23, 2018 in Kennedy Elementary School. An initial report filed by Roxbury police alleged Rooney not only held the child in the air but also shook him. However, the sole witness to the matter – teacher’s aide Sarah Cox – testified Wednesday that no shaking took place.
Cox said the boy was “running around, yelling, falling on the floor” and otherwise misbehaving. At one point, while the child was on the floor, Rooney “warned him she was going to hang him by his toes,” Cox said.
She said Rooney then picked the boy up by his ankles and held his head several inches off the floor. She said the boy yelled “put me down” and remained agitated. Rooney then “gently put him back on the ground,” Cox testified, adding “I don’t feel like it was malicious.”
She said Rooney’s actions did not succeed in changing the student’s disruptive behavior, noting he then tried “to throw stuff off the teacher’s desk.” Yamashita said her son is diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyspraxia and hypertonia.
She said it was wrong for Cox to wait until later in the day to report the incident to former Kennedy School Principal Eric Renfors, a delay that meant her son remained in the room with Rooney, who was suspended after the school administration learned about the incident.
A Dangle, Not A Shake
During his testimony, Morris County Prosecutor’s Office Detective Michael Bost explained why authorities came to discount the language of the initial police report – written by Roxbury Police Patrolman Nicholas Ponomarev – which said the boy was not only lifted in the air but also shaken.
Renfors told the patrolman that Cox reported the child “continued to misbehave,” leading Rooney to pick the boy up by his ankles and shake him “for several seconds while he was hanging upside-down,” according to Ponomarev’s report.
But Bost said Renfors, during a follow-up interview, “didn’t recall the word ‘shook’ being used or relayed” to Ponomarev. He also said Renfors – who left the district at the end of 2018 - took notes on the day he learned of the matter but subsequently “couldn’t find them.”
Bost said the prosecutor’s office might have pursued an indictment against Rooney if it believed she shook the child. Neither Ponomarev nor Renfors were called to testify in Rooney's trial.
Rooney’s lawyer – Roxbury Public Defender Douglass Sclar – asserted the scene of the incident was relevant. He said “touching someone else’s child” would be more inappropriate if it didn’t take place in a classroom setting by an educator attempting to restore order.
“I don’t think the touching here was any more than playful touching,” Sclar said. “The intent was to get the child to listen to instructions.”
In issuing his verdict, Cohen agreed the setting was an important factor, especially in terms of deciding whether Rooney's actions amounted to harassment as defined by the law. He said many actions taken by teachers to discipline obstinate students and instill order might be seen as a form of harassment in other settings.
“The teacher was trying to control the student,” he said. “The student clearly had no intention in doing what was instructed.”
Make sure you don’t miss any Roxbury news!
Click here to sign-up for our free, daily e-newsletter.