Magazine article Security Management

Malicious Prosecution

Magazine article Security Management

Malicious Prosecution

Article excerpt

In August 1997, Lou Ann Merkle was an art teacher at Sandy Run Middle School in the Upper Dublin School District in Pennsylvania. After cleaning out the art supplies cabinet at the school, Merkle and another teacher decided that some of the items were no longer useful and could be donated to a local community center that served underprivileged children. These items included 144 boxes of unopened crayons, some dry powder paint, two jars of used tempera paint, and some dry glue. The items to be donated had been in the supply cabinet for more than eight years.

In a recent appellate case, the court determined that a school district and two of its employees could be held liable for malicious prosecution and defamation for making unfounded accusations of theft against a school teacher.

As Merkle carried the items to her car, school principal Margaret Thomas approached her and asked what she was doing. Merkle explained the plan to donate the materials. Thomas asked whether Merkle had authorization to donate the items. Merkle replied that she did not and asked Thomas how to proceed. Thomas offered to contact the school's business manager to determine whether there was a procedure for donating school property. Merkle thanked Thomas and returned the items to the school.

Thomas called the business manager, who informed her that a list of the items to be donated should be compiled and submitted to the school board for approval. Thomas then called the district's superintendent, Clair Brown. Brown instructed Thomas to call the police and report the incident. Brown called the Upper Dublin Police Department and told them that Thomas would be calling to report that a teacher had been witnessed taking school property without permission. Thomas then made the official report to police.

A police detective met with Thomas at the school the next day. Thomas told the officer that Merkle had been caught stealing school property and that the district wanted to file charges. Based solely on the information from Thomas, the officer issued a warrant for Merkle's arrest. The same day, Merkle was informed that she would be suspended from her teaching position without pay pending the outcome of the investigation.

On September 2, the officer arrested Merkle and charged her with theft. After the arrest, Brown wrote a letter to the school board recommending that Merkle be dismissed on grounds of "immorality."

The district court held a hearing in October and set a date for trial. At this point, the case received substantial media attention. …

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