A physical education teacher at Madison's Franklin Elementary School faces one count of reckless child abuse causing bodily harm after a dispute with a student over leaving a door closed, according to a criminal complaint filed in Dane County Circuit Court on May 7.
An attorney representing the teacher, who had planned to retire at the end of this school year, said the incident was an accident.
A child at the school came home from school on April 1 and told his mother that a teacher caused an injury that was visible on his forehead, according to the complaint.
The student told a Dane County Health Services worker that on April 1, his gym teacher, Christopher Rumbelow, assigned him to a small group with a student who is mean to him. After stating that he did not want to be in the same group, the student left class and walked around the hallway before returning to the gym and standing in the doorway with the door closed, according to the complaint.
The complaint does not specify in which school the incident happened, but Rumbelow is listed as a physical education teacher at Franklin on the Madison Metropolitan School District's staff directory as of Tuesday afternoon. The elementary school is located on Lakeside Street, just south of Monona Bay.
After Rumbelow, 60, opened the door and told the student to leave the door open, the student started to kick the door and didn't listen. Rumbelow opened the door again and the door and door handle hit the student on the head. A Madison police officer reported that the student had a visible bump slighly above his eyebrow, with a small gash on the bump.
Detectives interviewed several staff members at the school, and some described a tense scene as Rumbelow grew frustrated as the situation escalated. One staff member, identified in the complaint by their initials, told Rumbelow that they could handle the situation as it escalated. Rumbelow was upset that teachers could not use a hands-on approach to dealing with the situation, and "that he did not understand why they could not just put their hands on (the victim) and get him out of there," according to the complaint.
"Although the defendant was not trained, the defendant has been told the directive of when not to go hands on versus when they are allowed to go hands on," the complaint reads. "The defendant can get frustrated quickly with kids showing behaviors in his gym class. The defendant is less tolerant and can get frustrated that teachers cannot put hands on."
One staff member said Rumbelow did eventually visit the nurses's office to apologize to the student. Rumbelow's attorney said his client attempted to apologize to the student and continues to feel bad that a student was injured during this incident.
The count of reckless child abuse is a felony charge that could lead to a fine of up to $10,000 or 3.5 years in jail, or both. An initial court appearance is scheduled for Thursday at 10:30 a.m.
Rumbelow is being represented by Jordan Loeb, an attorney at Pines Bach. Loeb previously represented Rob Mueller-Owens, a former Whitehorse Middle School staffer who made headlines earlier this year after an altercation occurred with a student. Mueller-Owens was not criminally charged in the case.
Loeb said Rumbelow planned to retire at the end of this year, and that prosecuting him would be a mistake because the incident was an accident.
"By all accounts, this injury was accidental, and it is extreme and outrageous for the district attorney's office to seek to criminalize an accidental injury," Loeb said in an interview. "Especially in the context that Christopher Rumbelow has been teaching for 31 years, 30 of those years in the district with no criminal record. There's no evidence that there was a lack of regard for the safety of the student and other students in doing his job. It was an accident."
"The safety and wellbeing of our students is our top priority and we took immediate action in this situation," MMSD spokesperson Rachel Strauch-Nelson said in a statement on Tuesday. "As soon as the incident occurred, the staff person was immediately put on administrative leave. The employee will remain on leave while the criminal process is ongoing and we will take appropriate follow up steps based on the outcome of that process."
A message to families was sent out on Tuesday afternoon, Strauch-Nelson said.
"I know that news like this involving our school will be difficult to digest," Principal Sylla Zarov said in a message to families. "I want you to know that I am here to talk with you and support you. I also want you to know that we have been working very closely with the family to support them and our student."
The Madison teachers' union said they are aware of the legal charges against Rumbelow.
"MTI strongly supports the full, fair, and timely investigation of allegations made against any school district employee, including members of MTI," Madison Teachers Inc. Executive Director Doug Keillor said in a statement Wednesday morning. "We also need to withhold judgement until conclusions of facts are rendered."
Keillor said Rumbelow is an MTI member and that the group would not have further comments until the legal process ends. Keillor noted that the legal system includes a presumption of innocence until proven guilty, and that they trust the legal system to produce a just outcome.