A court in Tarascon, in the southern department of Bouches-du-Rhône, on Tuesday acquitted a teacher who had been charged with manslaughter and “neglecting a specific duty of care,” after one of her pupils was found hanged outside her classroom.
Agnès Maulard-Lelong, 42, had risked a five-year jail term and €75,000 ($103,000) in damages for her role in the accidental death of her pupil, 11-year-old Khoren Grimaldi, at the Anne Frank school in nearby Arles, in May 2011.
In the end, however, prosecutor Vincent Mick had himself declined to request a criminal penalty for Maulard Lelong.
He told the court that the relevant French law was too vague to be able to definitively say that the teacher’s “moral responsibility” for the boy’s death clearly translated into a criminal offence.
During her trial last month, Maulard-Lelong first denied, and then appeared to accept, responsibility for the death of Grimaldi, who was found hanged on a coat rack shortly after she had sent him out of class as punishment.
"I don't think I was responsible for Khoren's death," she told the court at the beginning of proceedings on September 24th.
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."
'Go outside with the coats'
On the morning of May 26th 2011, Maulard-Lelong punished Grimaldi, 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 in September.
According to several of the boy’s fellow pupils, however, before sending him out Maulard-Lelong told him: “In the classroom, schoolchildren do work. You aren’t behaving like a school pupil, you’re not working. So go outside with the coats,” according to Le Point.
Some 30 minutes later, Grimaldi asked if he could return to the class, at which point his teacher is reported to have told him: “I don’t want to see you anymore.”
A further 15 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.
'Children cannot be left without surveillance'
Khoren’s parents – Laure and Nicolas Grimaldi – had accused the teacher of an unacceptable lack of surveillance of their son, 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 were 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.