A former Ignacio High School teacher accused of assaulting a student no longer faces misdemeanor charges for child abuse.
La Plata County Judge Martha Minot ruled Friday that Harris Murphy is immune from prosecution under state law, which allows teachers to use physical force if they’re acting in self-defense or in good-faith compliance with the school code of discipline.
A one-day trial was set to begin Thursday.
The case was almost certain to be a head-scratcher for jurors: At play was the need to maintain school discipline, protect students from physical harm and empower teachers to control their classrooms. It also highlighted how witnesses perceive events differently, even with video.
Those who reviewed the case in depth agree on one fact: A scuffle took place. But who instigated it, and who is ultimately responsible is disputed.
The 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office charged Murphy with two counts of child abuse. District Attorney Christian Champagne said his office disagrees with Minot’s immunity ruling, “but the judge made her decision, and we have to respect it, and we do.” Murphy’s Durango defense lawyer, John Baxter, declined to comment Thursday.
Part of the Sept. 1, 2015, struggle at Igancio High School was recorded on the school’s video surveillance system. But the events leading to the confrontation occurred in a classroom and were not caught on camera.
The District Attorney’s Office released a copy of the video after receiving an open-records request from The Durango Herald.
Witnesses, school officials and a hearing officer hired to review the scuffle gave varying accounts, including the parts that were recorded on video.
The video shows Murphy and the student, Seranden Frost, 15, grasping at each other as they exit a classroom. Seranden appears to walk away, and Murphy pursues him. Murphy grabs at the boy’s leg, effectively bringing the student to the floor. A door then obscures the view.
A student rushes to the scene, apparently to separate the teacher and student. Then a teacher enters the hallway and stands between Murphy and Seranden.
Fifteen days after the incident, in a letter to school board members, Superintendent Rocco Fuschetto recommended that Murphy be dismissed for insubordination, neglect of duty and other “good and just cause.” In the letter, Fuschetto summarized his version of events:
Murphy, a science teacher, told Seranden to remove his earphones, but Seranden didn’t respond and became upset.
Murphy grabbed Seranden by the hood of his sweatshirt and pulled him out of his seat.
Seranden attempted to pull away to go to the office, but Murphy continued to pull on his sweatshirt. The struggle proceeded into the hall, after which the interaction was recorded.
According to Fuschetto, the video shows Seranden backing away from Murphy and trying to get away. But the boy’s pants fell down around his knees, and as he reached down to pull them up, Murphy tackled the boy, grabbing him by his hood with one hand and attempting to grab his legs with the other.
“Mr. Murphy then grabbed (Seranden) and dragged him across the floor and pushed him against the wall,” Fuschetto’s letter says. Teacher Jessica Musch stood between Murphy and Seranden and directed other students to return to their classrooms.
At Murphy’s request, the school district hired Durango lawyer Jim Casey to act as an independent hearing officer.
In a nine-page report, Casey disagreed with Fuschetto’s description of events, including those caught on video.
He also faulted the school district for failing to obtain Murphy’s side of the story or collecting statements from other students.
According to the hearing officer, the video doesn’t show Murphy pulling on the student’s sweatshirt, it doesn’t show the student backing away from Murphy, and it doesn’t show Murphy grabbing the student and dragging him across the floor or pushing him against a wall.
Based on statements gathered, it appears Murphy twice asked Seranden to remove his ear buds while in class. On the third time, Murphy took Seranden’s cellphone away, but the student returned an ear bud to his ears nonetheless.
Seranden then pulled his hood onto his head “in further defiance of his teacher,” a violation of the student dress code, Casey wrote.
Seranden attempted to retrieve his cellphone from Murphy and leave the classroom without permission, Casey wrote. Murphy stood between him and the door. The student grabbed Murphy’s wrist that was holding his cellphone, and said, “Watch out man, I’m gonna get my phone and go to the office,” Casey wrote in his review.
Murphy, who was 67, said his hand was injured and he feared the student was reaching for a weapon. It was only then that he put his hands on Seranden.
The hearing officer found Murphy acted properly in asking Seranden to remove the ear bud, in seizing Seranden’s cellphone and in refusing to return it. The student initiated the physical altercation.
“The hearing officer finds Mr. Murphy’s ability to gain control over the younger, larger student by means of a simple back trip to have been reasonable under the circumstances,” he wrote.
Based on Casey’s findings, Murphy was re-instated but placed on paid administrative leave for the remainder of his one-year contract, Fuschetto said. His contract was not renewed.
Seranden’s grandfather said Thursday he plans to file a lawsuit against Murphy.