A year ago, longtime Linwood music teacher Kimberly Peschi was found guilty in the city’s municipal court of simple assault following an incident involving her and a 12-year-old student. All agree that the boy was leaning back in his chair and that after Peschi moved her leg behind the chair, he fell to the floor and hit his head.
The prosecutor in the case argued that she caused the chair to fall with “clearly deliberate conduct.” Her attorney said her actions were “entirely reflexive” to stop the chair from falling.
Then in September, another judge in the same Linwood/Northfield municipal courtroom ruled that Peschi had to forfeit her public employment, saying her actions “went well beyond corrective behavior.”
From the time of the incident until last week, Peschi’s case also has been tried in the court of social media. For many people, the newspaper stories and brief video of the incident were enough to convince them of her guilt and justify their calls for her decades-long teaching career to be ended or worse punishment administered.
Meanwhile, Peschi’s attorney appealed her convictions to New Jersey Superior Court. Last week, Judge John Rauh found her not guilty of simple assault on the student, which also overturned the forfeiture of her teaching license.
Rauh noted that the video of the incident is only 20 seconds long, the disputed contact is only an instant in that video, and it’s grainy and blurred. Weighing the evidence, he said that Peschi’s testimony that she was trying to right the chair is “plausible.”
“Given the brief period of the time the whole incident took place, I am not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant acted purposely, knowingly or recklessly with regard to the injury to the child,” Rauh explained. “She certainly intended to put her foot on that chair, but the state of mind has to go to the injury to the child.”
Rauh’s ruling deserves not just acceptance, but confidence that it is just under the law. Superior Court, by virtue of its experience and standards, is the place where cases that may subject defendants to serious punishments should be heard. Losing one’s long-established career, reputation and way of life is as serious as punishment gets short of imprisonment.
The U.S. legal system is designed to require that evidence is fully convincing of guilt. If it’s not enough to overcome the reasonable doubts of a Superior Court judge, then there is no guilt. That’s how it must be if society is to avoid convicting innocent people.
In the court of social media, by comparison, almost any evidence can be convincing. There is always a judgment, typically multiple judgments in conflict, usually asserted with certainty.
That’s fine as long as social media arguments are about public standards and not guilt or innocence in a case. Precisely where there is public pressure for a particular outcome, the need for a legal system that ensures justice and keeps society civil is greatest.
The law now requires that Peschi’s teaching license and job be restored, and presumably that she receive back pay. Civility also requires that Linwood accept the Superior Court judgment of her innocence and welcome her back to teaching at Belhaven School.
When the Linwood Board of Education filed the tenure charges against her to end her teaching career, it said it remains “committed to making the health, safety and welfare of our students our top priorities.”
Well, there is hardly a greater contributor to the health, safety and welfare of everyone in America than a soundly functioning and confidence-inspiring legal system. Linwood can support that by welcoming back its cleared music teacher.