Charges of criminal sexual conduct filed against a former assistant principal, Catherine Armstrong Bell (34) at a high school in Pelham, Alabama were dismissed last week pursuant to an agreement between the former defendant and the prosecutor. The indictment had alleged that Bell had a sexual relationship with a student at the school who was under the age of 19. The student apparently has since recanted his words and refused to cooperate in the case. Bell’s attorney, Rick Lyerly, was quoted as saying, “. . .she was wrongfully accused. That these events never occurred”, and that the case “. . . was generated from the get-go by a rumor mill. . .”. The agreement between the parties called for a release of liability for those involved in the prosecution and investigation of the case.
Bell had been charged under a 2010 Alabama amended statute which makes it a crime for school officials to have sexual intercourse or contact with a student who is under the age of 19. The statute differs from most other states where the age is set at 18. In essence, such statutes make it impossible for the student to lawfully consent to having sex with a teacher, or other school officials, defined in the statute to include, teacher, school administrator, student teacher, safety or resource officer, coach, and other school employee. The statute differentiates between sexual acts of intercourse involving penetration and those consisting of oral or anal acts, and sexual contact, the former being felonies and the latter a “Class A” misdemeanor.
COMMENT: While it may be that the release of liability was necessary to obtain a dismissal in this case, it is truly unfortunate that Ms. Bell had to undergo such an ordeal. It will likely be difficult for her to “get on with her life” in the wake of these allegations, and there will always be those who say things like, “She got away with it” and others who discuss the case with a “wink, wink”. As a matter of law, she is now innocent, and wherever possible, should be restored to her previous status (if this is not already in the works), including, if she so desires, to her school position.