The court cases against a school principal and a former Shenandoah County sheriff’s deputy who worked in the schools have ended.
Judge Kevin Black found Ashby Lee Elementary School Principal Stephen Povlish not guilty of assault and battery in an incident involving a 5-year-old boy. Black also ended the case against former deputy and school resource officer Tabatha Raye Baker-Whitacre, who faced a charge of assault and battery, when he granted a motion to strike the evidence.
Black heard testimony Wednesday morning in both trials, which were held back to back in Shenandoah County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.
Povlish’s came first.
“Not every touch is a criminal touch. I don’t think there was criminal intent,” Black said. “The facts indicate no criminal action if there was touch, and there is reasonable doubt to that.”
Povlish declined to comment after the hearing. His attorney, David Penrod, of Harrisonburg, said Black “got it right.”
Povlish had testified that he absolutely would not hurt a child and that he loves his job.
He referred to the boy as “one of my special guys” he checked on every day and sometimes multiple times a day.
The allegation as reported was that on Aug. 16 the boy, a kindergartner who at the time was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, was acting out and running. Testimony was that the boy had recently been taken off his medication so that doctors could eventually try another.
The boy, who several witnesses testified was loving but could be difficult and aggressive, stepped on the hand of a girl who was sitting on the floor, according to testimony from Ashby Lee special education teacher Jessica Metz, who works with the boy. She took him away to try to calm him but instead had to radio for assistance from others in the school as he continued to act out.
Povlish was one of the people who showed up to help.
Metz testified that she saw Povlish place both of his feet on the boy’s hands, rocking from his left foot to his right foot back to his left foot while asking the boy “Is that what you do to little girls? How does that make you feel?”
She did not know how much pressure was being applied but said the boy laughed at Povlish.
Povlish’s testimony offered a different account.
Povlish said he did not touch the boy, but if any contact was made, it was unintentional. Povlish said that he had asked the boy to tell him what he did. The boy’s hand was close to his foot, and Povlish testified he raised his foot and told the boy: “‘You wouldn’t want me doing that to you. We don’t do that to friends’. He (the boy) rolled and he might have brushed my foot,” Povlish said.
When asked by Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Austin Hovermale what he was hoping to make the boy understand, Povlish said he had a rapport with the child and was trying to make the boy understand and think about what he had done.
Baker-Whitacre, who had also responded to the call for help, testified she witnessed Povlish mimic the action but said from where she was, she never saw him make contact.
Heather Marshall, special agent for the Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigations, testified to the interviews she conducted with Povlish and Baker-Whitacre regarding this incident.
Povlish, when interviewed, mimicked raising and lowering his foot. He denied making any contact “but said anything is possible,” Marshall testified.
Marshall said that when interviewing Baker-Whitacre at one point, Baker-Whitacre said she was not in the line of sight to see Povlish’s feet.
Special education teacher Julia Taylor testified that she was in the room during the incident, saw Povlish place his foot on the boy’s hand but did not see if he placed pressure. She also said that the boy laughed after talking to Povlish.
Erika Richman, an assistant principal, testified that Povlish’s relationships with Ashby Lee students was one of respect and caring. Richman said at times the boy has wanted to just visit Povlish and has asked that Povlish walk him out of school.
Baker-Whitacre faced her own trial soon after Povlish was found not guilty. She was represented by attorney William Allen III.
Metz took the stand a second time, but this time she testified to what she witnessed of Baker-Whitacre’s actions on Aug. 17 in a separate incident with the same boy.
Metz said she had to remove the boy from class because he was acting out. She was able to move the child into her office where things became “a free for all” as the child grabbed at everything. Metz called for help on this day as well. The boy tried to eat items with magnets on the back and staff members were afraid the boy could be hurt if he did so.
Baker-Whitacre arrived at the office. Metz and others testified Baker-Whitacre placed the boy into a hold and took him to the ground and held him for 13 minutes, Metz testified.
Metz testified the training she received only allowed her to hold someone for three minutes and then release the individual.
She was told Baker-Whitacre, as a deputy, followed different procedures.
“But I never got an answer as to what those were,” Metz testified.
The child’s grandmother arrived at the school, along with the girlfriend of the child’s father, to pick up the child.
The boy ended up under Metz’s desk, and then under a table.
Eventually, the women were able to get the boy out from under the desk and he was subsequently held by the girlfriend.
The grandmother and the girlfriend both testified they saw the boy spit at Baker-Whitacre, and Baker-Whitacre slapped the boy on the face with an open hand.
“We were all shocked. She apologized and said it was reflexive,” the grandmother testified.
Both said the slap was instant.
Metz testified she was looking down as she documented what was happening but heard the slap.
Marshall, of the state police, testified that Baker-Whitacre said in the interview that she raised her hand to deflect the spit and made contact.
Allen, when all testimony was complete, made a motion to strike the evidence. Black granted the request, effectively ending the case.
“To put a human being into a situation that is impossible, and then we sit here months later and wade through it,” Black said.
Baker-Whitacre afterward cried and hugged her family. She and Allen both declined to comment.
The grandmother declined to comment as well.
Shenandoah School Superintendent Mark Johnston declined to comment about what could be next regarding Povlish, who is on unpaid administrative leave.