They were first-graders from Room 5 at Humphreys Avenue Elementary School in East Los Angeles last year, and they had come to testify against their teacher, Jean Wagner.
Sitting in the witness box at the Municipal Court of East Los Angeles, Steven Luevano testified that "Mrs. Wagner" smashed his head to the table last year, giving him a nosebleed. His offense, he said, was that he had "put the 'e' in the wrong place" in the alphabet.
Victoria Godinez testified that Wagner hit her with a ruler. Her offense, she said, was writing with her left hand instead of her right.
In all, seven children, all 6- and 7-year-olds, testified in an unusual trial that Wagner, who had taught at Humphreys for 24 years, hit pupils in her classroom this past school year. Some said she hit pupils "all the time."
A teacher for 27 years, Wagner, 53, has pleaded not guilty to nine misdemeanor counts of "cruelty to a child by inflicting injury." Instead, she testified, she merely "tapped" children to keep them "on task."
Case Goes to Jury
The trial, which filled the small courtroom with parents, opened two weeks ago. The case went to the jury Monday afternoon. If found guilty, Wagner could be fined $1,000 and sentenced to one year in jail. She also faces possible disciplinary procedures by the Board of Education and state credentialing authorities,.
Participants in the case, including attorneys and parents, were admonished against speaking about it by the judge, Commissioner Bernard F. Kemper, while the trial is in progress. Wagner and the parents declined comment.
One community representative who worked at the school, Joyce Rubal, said she had heard complaints about Wagner from parents for more than two years. Some parents, she said, worked as teachers' aides, and were hesitant to step forward for fear of losing their jobs.
"The parents have been very upset over this," she said. "One parent said her child was vomiting because she was so scared to go to school. . . . Another child had reverted to wetting the bed. Even the parents were crying in frustration."
Because personnel files are not public record, it is not clear what parental complaints, if any, reached Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters before charges were filed last March, and Wagner was transferred to an administrative post.
Sidney Thompson, district deputy superintendent for operations, said he first heard of the case when it was referred by the principal during the last academic year.
"This case, if the allegations were to be proven true, is unusual in that there were so many incidents that allegedly happened," said Thompson, who said he could remember fewer than 10 or 15 such criminal proceedings against teachers over the past five years, virtually all of them involving a single student and a single incident.
Since the mid-1970s, the school district has maintained a policy against corporal punishment. Thompson said that previous policy long before that had allowed a child to be spanked, but had not allowed the sort of striking with a ruler or stick pointer that Wagner stands accused of.
Taking the stand on Friday in her own defense, Wagner said she occasionally "tapped" children on the hand if they were not "on task." To demonstrate, she rapped on the witness stand.
"Did you 'tap' them a lot?" her attorney, Richard Schwab, asked her.
"Yes, I feel that's important," she said, "If you can't get their attention, they'll never learn." But, she added, "there was no force" involved in such "taps."
In his closing arguments, Schwab described his client as a "no-nonsense teacher who sacrificed popularity to help children learn." Pointing to apparent inconsistencies in children's testimony over certain details of the allegations, he said children should have gone to the nurse's office had there been actual injuries. No nurses' or doctors' reports were introduced into evidence.
"Look at the size of that woman," Deputy Dist. Atty. Kellyjean Chun told the jurors in her closing arguments. Then, pointing to Wagner, a stout woman of proud bearing, she rapped on the witness box sharply, as Wagner had done, and said, "Imagine a ruler or a pointer stick in her hand. Imagine the size of a child. Is that necessary to keep a child 'on task?' "