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State Law Shields Fired School Contract Worker From Charges

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala.(WHNT)-Fired but not charged. Legal experts say distinguishing between school policy and state law is key to why prosecutors are not filing charges against a former school contract worker for Huntsville City Schools.

Earlier this week prosecutors announced they would not charge the former worker at University Place Elementary who was accused of beating an eight year-old boy with a studded belt. Police later confirmed that other students at University Place had been whipped by the same worker as well.

The unidentified contract worker was immediately fired after the boy's mother reported the corporal punishment, which is forbidden by Huntsville City Schools policy. But legal analysts say state law gives leeway to school workers to use corporal punishment, even if their local school district bans it. Huntsville attorney Mark McDaniel told WHNT News 19 that school workers who supervise children are immune from prosecution as long as evidence does not show clear signs of abuse or torture.

"State law allows reasonable force, if it's necessary and appropriate you can have corporal punishment," said McDaniel, who is not involved in the case. Prosecutors declined to comment on the evidence they reviewed, but McDaniel said it's clear whatever they saw did not show probable cause for child abuse or similar charges.

"There may have been evidence, certainly evidence of corporal punishment, but the issue is could they convict this person if they arrest him. And to convict him they would have to prove that the corporal punishment is not necessary, was not appropriate...policy is one thing, a criminal charge is a totally different world."

Shablis Harrell is the mother of the eight year-old who was whipped. Mrs. Harrell told WHNT News 19 that the decision not to pursue criminal charges against the school staffer who whipped her son is incomprehensible.

"Very shocked, very sad, very hurt for my child," said Harrell. "I feel like there's just a big failure as far as justice being served."

Mrs. Harrell said her outrage was compounded by the fact that she learned of the decision through news reports instead of the Huntsville Police Department, which she claims never called to inform her. Authorities announced the findings of their probe to the media on Tuesday. Mrs. Harrell said the former contract worker used a studded belt that left severe cuts and bruises on her son's buttocks. She said the worker took her son to an empty room and turned off the light before proceeding to whip him.

School officials and law enforcement declined to identify the former contract worker or what his role at University Place Elementary was. Madison County Assistant District Attorney Jason Scully-Clemmons declined to talk on camera, but did issue a statement.

"If the same level of discipline that a parent could use and not be charged was used by this former school worker, then we're not going to charge him."