Celebrated as Teacher of the Year, she was charged with child abuse days later: What we know

The Florida Times-Union | C. A. Bridges | November 2, 2021

Last Wednesday, Caroline Melanie Lee was named Teacher of the Year at Darnell-Cookman Middle/High in Jacksonville.

Two days later, she was arrested and charged with third-degree felony child abuse, accused of striking a student at the school. 

What happened? 

Here’s what we know so far.

Who is Caroline Melanie Lee?

Caroline Melanie Lee, 60, is an English Language Arts teacher at Darnell-Cookman Middle/High in Jacksonville. She teaches an English Honors class.

What started the incident?

Duval County Public Schools posted a photo of Lee on Instagram Wednesday, congratulating her for being named the school’s Teacher of the Year. But several comments on the post asked if Lee was the same teacher who used the ‘n’ word during instruction and alleged other microaggressions committed against students. 

Lee responded to her comment, explaining that she used the “n” word in the context of teaching “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck. The student — who is a minor and is not named in the report — replied that she still didn’t think it was right to use the word, and she told police that Lee “agreed.”

Works listed in Lee’s English Honors current assignments include “Of Mice and Men,” “Strange Fruit,” an anti-lynching poem by Abel Meerpol, and “Desiree’s Baby,” by Kate Chopin, about racism, identity and women in the American South in the 1800s.

The original Instagram post and comments have since been deleted. 

What does the student say Caroline Melanie Lee did Friday?

According to the police report, on Friday morning Lee contacted the student’s first-period teacher and said she wanted to talk to the student, who is not in any of Lee’s classes. The teacher told the student when she arrived, but the girl told police she felt uneasy about seeing Lee and went to the bathroom instead. When she returned, Lee came to her first-period classroom, collected her, and rushed back to her own room while yelling at the student to keep up, the girl said.

There was another student by the front door of Lee’s room, the student said, and Lee asked him to leave before closing both doors. They sat across a table, the student said.

In the report, the student says that Lee asked her why she threatened Lee. The student said she did not, and Lee struck her in the face with the heel of her hand, causing her nose to start bleeding. The student said Lee continued to hit her around the top of her head while loudly cursing and calling her names. The student tried to grab Lee’s arms, the report said, and Lee kicked her on the lower leg before opening the rear door and telling her to get out.

What does Caroline Melanie Lee say happened?

Lee described the same Instagram exchange but said another student alerted her to a message that she interpreted as “a threat to kill her,” so she told police that she wanted to meet privately with the student to discuss it. She denied closing her doors, saying “she always leaves her doors open.”

Lee told police she was not afraid of the student and hadn’t felt the need to report the alleged threat to police or administrative staff. She did say she felt “a range of emotions” during her contact with the student, the report said, and felt angry, upset, and disappointed. She asked the student to take down the comment about Lee using the “n” word “because everyone sees those posts.” 

According to the report, Lee said she wanted to impress upon the student that was “not racist and is a nice person.” After that, she told the student to leave her classroom.

Lee had no explanation for the student’s bleeding nose. She also pointed out to police in the interview that it was the student’s word against hers.

What do witnesses say?

The student at Lee’s door told police he was decorating it when she asked him to leave and closed the door, and he could hear yelling inside. After the girl left Lee let him come back in, the report says, and when he asked what happened she said she wanted to talk to the girl about the Instagram post and the girl called her a racist.

The guidance counselor told police that the student arrived at the office in shock and bleeding from the nose. The counselor advised her to go to student services, but the student said she was afraid of leaving the safety of the office in case Lee was outside. The counselor told police she found the student’s account believable.

Is there video of Caroline Melanie Lee  and the student?

The video footage revealed the following, according to the police report:

  • 8:21:50 a.m.: Lee leaves her classroom by the back door.
  • 8:22:59 a.m.: Lee returns at an “aggressive pace,” leading the student. Both enter the classroom’s back door.
  • 8:23:02 a.m.: Lee motions away the student at the front door and closed the front door.
  • 8:23:31 a.m.: Lee shuts the rear door.
  • 8:24:13 a.m.: The student exits the rear door of the classroom. According to the report, her “demeanor seems low” and she is holding the front of her face. She goes directly to the guidance office.

What was the school’s reaction to the charges against Caroline Melanie Lee?

Following the arrest, the school’s Principal Tyrus Lyles called students’ families with the news. 

“It is very disappointing, but I am compelled to share with you that one of our teachers was arrested today on campus for child abuse,” he said. “Even more disappointing, the teacher arrested is our recent teacher of the year nominee.”

Lyles said he is in contact with the student’s family. 

In response to the incident, Duval Schools Superintendent Diana Greene released a statement calling the situation “beyond disturbing.” 

“What is alleged should never occur—ever—especially in a school setting,” she said. “I have no tolerance for adults who harm children, especially adults in a position of trust. We will cooperate with all investigations, and pending those results, we will take the actions necessary to stand up for and protect our students.”

What will happen now?

Lee was arrested and charged with Child Abuse – Intentional Act / Could Be Expected to Result in Physical or Mental Injury. She was released on her own recognizance at 5:28 p.m. Friday afternoon.

Lee has been removed from the classroom and will not return, pending judicial and internal procedures, the principal said. 

Contributor: Emily Bloch, Florida Times-Union

Share With:
Rate This Article