A court in southern France witnessed moments of high drama on Tuesday, as a 42-year-old teacher first denied, and then appeared to accept, responsibility for the death of an 11-year-old pupil who was found hanged shortly after she had sent him out of class.
The schoolteacher went on trial in the southern city of Tarascon, charged with manslaughter and “neglecting a specific duty of care,” after the pupil, Khoren, whom she had punished, was later found hanged on a coat rack outside the classroom.
"I don't think I was responsible for Khoren's death," the accused told the court at the beginning of Tuesday's proceedings.
Questioned by a prosecutor later on, however, as to whether she felt "morally responsible for his death," the teacher replied: "Yes," before turning to the boy's parents in court and saying, "I'm sorry."
On the morning of May 26th 2011, the teacher at the school in Arles, in the Bouches-du-Rhône department, punished 11-year-old Khoren, known as a bright but mischievous boy, for misbehaving in class.
She told him: “You’re useless, go and join the coats [outside],” according to the victim’s family’s lawyer, speaking to TF1 television.
Some 45 minutes later, Khoren was found hanging by his t-shirt from a coat rack in the hallway, in a state of cardiac arrest.
Teachers in the school made immediate CPR efforts before transporting Khoren to Timone hospital in nearby Marseille.
He died four days later, having never regained consciousness.
It is not believed the boy was driven to despair and deliberately committed suicide, but rather that a dark joke gone wrong was at the heart of his tragic death.
“When he was told ‘Go and join the coats’, he might have been trying to hang himself up [on the rack], like a coat, just to make his classmates laugh,” the family’s lawyer explained.
The autopsy would support that tragic theory, since it found that the cause of Khoren’s death was a “cerebral oedema,” whereby the compression of his carotid artery cut off the blood flow to his brain.
The boy’s parents are in no doubt as to where to point the finger of blame for the son’s death, and plan to sue the state, for what they see as an unacceptable lack of surveillance of Khoren, during his time outside the classroom that morning.
“Khoren was left for 45 minutes without surveillance, and he also came back to the classroom twice to ask if he could go back in again,” said the family’s lawyer.
“The rules in place in this region say that children cannot be left without surveillance. And when a child is punished, that surveillance needs to be stepped up even more,” he added.
The little boy’s parents will be a civil party to the trial, to make sure “this doesn’t happen again.”
“The family expects from this trial that rules on the surveillance of children will get firmer, and that teachers will get additional training on it,” said the lawyer.
The judge in Tuesday's proceedings told the court the teacher had shown "a deficient duty to monitor [the pupil]", but that this was merely a "simple mistake."
He did, however, condemn both the defendant and the school for their "lack of humanity," in the way they handled Khoren's death, reinstalling the teacher to her job after just a month's suspension.
No verdict was reached on Tuesday, and the judge deferred the case until October 29th.
Though none have had such tragic results, this is only the latest in a series of incidents which have led to French teachers appearing in court.
On Monday, a female English teacher was given a suspended eight-month prison sentence after being found guilty of "sexual assault of a minor under 15 years of age by a person in a position of authority” and “making sexual propositions to a minor by electronic means.”
The unmarried teacher had a romantic affair with a then 14-year-old girl that began back in September 2011, according to a judicial source quoted by regional daily La Voix du Nord, and was described as consensual by both parties, according to reports.
The alleged scam came to light after a disciplinary committee decided last month to expel the boy.
"The father said to the committee 'I don't understand why he is being expelled when I'm paying so that he isn't'," said Bernard Beffy, prosecutor in the northern town of Avesnes-sur-Helpe.
In February 2012, a French teacher was hauled before court after admitting he had drunkenly slapped three of his young pupils at a school in northern France.
The man was given a two-year suspended jail sentence, banned from teaching for two years, and ordered to pay a €900 fine and attend alcohol addiction counselling.