MOULTRIE, Ga. — A Cox Elementary School teacher has been charged with cruelty to children in connection with an incident in which a student had duct tape placed over their mouth.

Aralee Smith, 33, of Valdosta, was charged Thursday with first degree cruelty to children, but the incident happened in her classroom in the fall of 2020. She is identified on the Colquitt County Schools website as a second grade teacher, but law enforcement did not say how old the student is or whether they are male or female.

Colquitt County Sheriff’s Investigator Blake Livings said Smith told him “the child had put the duct tape on their own mouth.” Further investigation cast doubt on that explanation, Livings said.

At the time of the incident, Smith was using the duct tape to “hang stuff on the wall,” Livings said

“While she was using the duct tape, the student was ‘talking back quite a lot’ to Smith,” said Livings. “(Smith) stated that she jokingly said the student was the one who needs the duct tape.”

According to the report Smith gave, the student had snatched the duct tape out of her hand and put it over their own mouth. The student then proceeded to take the other pieces of duct tape that had been laid out on Smith’s desk and placed them over their mouth on top of the original.

Livings stated that due to other interviews he conducted, “This did not seem to be the case.” A photograph taken by Smith of the student with the duct tape on their face was discovered by another faculty member in April and was reported to Cox Elementary Principal Leamon Madison. 

Madison reported the incident to the Colquitt County School Board, who began its own investigation after which Smith was placed on administrative leave, according to Livings. On May 4 the board notified the mother of the child who then notified the Sheriff's Office of the incident.

“The probable cause for Smith’s arrest was overwhelming,” said Livings. “Other testimonies point in other directions other than what she had stated.”

School Superintendent Ben Wiggins and Cox Principal Leamon Madison were unavailable for comment on Thursday. Cox Elementary Assistant Principal O’tessa Pelham, who responded when The Observer called the school, declined to comment. 

In fairness to school officials: The incident and the school system’s investigation took place before Wiggins or Pelham was associated with Cox Elementary School. Wiggins took office as superintendent May 3, the day before the student’s mother was notified of the Board of Education’s findings. Pelham was a teacher at C.A. Gray Junior High School until her promotion to assistant principal at Cox, which was announced just this week. The school system announced a successor to Madison as principal in early May, but she’s not scheduled to start until July 1; no announcement has been made about where Madison is going or whether he’s already left the school.

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