EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 15, 2008

Substitute won't go to jail, but banned from teaching

By Courtney Paquette

LAWRENCE — A former substitute teacher convicted of assaulting a first-grader won't go to jail, but is barred from teaching elementary school in Massachusetts.

Douglas Tracia, 48, of Georgetown was sentenced yesterday to 60 days in jail — all of it suspended for a 21/2-year probationary period — by Lawrence District Court Judge Kevin Gaffney. Tracia's elementary school teaching license will be revoked and he must attend anger management classes.

Prosecutors wanted Tracia to serve 60 days in jail for picking up a 7-year-old South Lawrence East Elementary School student by his shirt collar and banging him into a door last May 15. The incident was captured on the school's surveillance camera.

"I think it's a significant sentence, but I'm happy that the court didn't see fit to incarcerate Mr. Tracia," his lawyer, Wayne Murphy, said. "He remains convinced he did nothing wrong."

Murphy said that Tracia received about 80 e-mails from other teachers and people in education after a jury found him guilty of reckless assault and battery Thursday for the incident, "expressing their outrage at the verdict and their best wishes."

"Most of the sentiments were that he was confronted with a tough situation and dealt with it reasonably," Murphy said.

Gaffney gave little explanation of his decision, saying only, "The court is mindful that this is an emotionally charged case," and instructing those present in the courtroom not to react when the clerk read the sentence.

Tracia and several family members in court yesterday declined to comment.

Before sentencing, the boy's mother — Lina Tejada, 32 — read a statement she had written on a crumpled piece of notebook paper through a Spanish-language interpreter.

"He has cried a lot," Tejada said of her son. "He has nightmares and he's very afraid. He said he didn't want to come here. He doesn't even want to see his teacher on television."

Tracia countered with his own statement, talking about support he's received from other educators.

"(They've) said to me, after all you've done for the youth, we can't believe this is happening to you," Tracia said, adding that he's been a teacher for 15 years. Tracia also spent six years running a law firm specializing in children, family and criminal defense cases. He later shifted his focus to insurance protection and financial planning.

Thursday, a jury found Tracia guilty of reckless assault and battery. The jury found him not guilty of two additional charges — assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and intentional assault and battery. The jury deliberated for five hours in a trial that lasted three days.

The charges stem from an incident at South Lawrence East when a first-grade girl threw a book at the boy during one of Tracia's classes. The boy threw the book back at her. When Tracia told them to shake hands and make up, the boy ran down the hall. Tracia was seen on a surveillance camera chasing after him, grabbing him by the shirt collar, lifting him off the floor and banging him into a door.

Assistant District Attorney Michelle Defeo argued that the judge should sentence Tracia to 21/2 years in jail — the maximum allowed for the offense under the law — 60 days of which he would serve. She asked that the remainder of his sentence be suspended for three years. Defeo also recommended that Tracia surrender his teaching license and take anger management classes.

"We entrust our children to teachers every day," Defeo said. "These kids look up to them. They are role models. ... A 260-pound man picked up a 7-year-old by the back of his neck. The facts of this case warrant some committed time."

Murphy argued that Tracia's crime didn't warrant jail time because he didn't intentionally try to hurt the boy. He argued during the trial that Tracia was trying to keep the boy from running out of the school.

Prior to yesterday's sentencing, Murphy also made a rare, and unsuccessful, attempt to get the judge to overturn the guilty verdict. Typically, that is done during a separate appeal.

Murphy mentioned the Dred Scott decision, a pivotal Supreme Court case in which a slave sued unsuccessfully for his freedom in 1858, in trying to get the judge to overturn the jury's guilty verdict of Tracia.

"That was an instance of judicial cowardice," Murphy said of the Dred Scott case. "This court, at this stage, has the ability to remedy, in effect, what the jury did wrong (in the Tracia case)."

Gaffney denied Murphy's request, saying that the evidence was sufficient to sustain the charge.