Attorney: Ex-Norwalk math coach accused of putting students in chokeholds had 'no intent to harm'
A former Norwalk elementary school math coach did not mean to hurt anyone when she demonstrated martial arts moves on students, which caused one child to pass out, according to her attorney.
Phil Russell spoke with News 12 Friday following the initial hearing for his client, Stefanie Sanabria, in Stamford Superior Court.
“Within minutes of when this boy is alleged to have lost consciousness, he was playing on a jumpy castle with his friends. It was almost a trivial event in the minds of many people, but the way that it got reported out, and the way that the story snowballed is most unfortunate,” Russell said.
Sanabria is charged with strangulation, risk of injury and reckless endangerment. She’s accused of putting three fifth graders in chokeholds at Brookside Elementary School on Feb. 24.
According to Sanabria's arrest warrant, the assistant principal told police Sanabria said, "Since it was Friday, she wanted to do something fun with her math group." He said Sanabria explained, "She was considering offering martial arts classes after school and advised that she was trained in jiu-jitsu.” The warrant said Sanabria told the assistant principal she demonstrated a few moves with the class, one of them being a chokehold, which a few students offered to participate in. Sanabria allegedly told the students, “If they felt some pressure to tap her elbow, [and] she would release them,” the assistant principal said.
Police said things went fine with the first two boys, but the third lost consciousness. According to the warrant, Sanabria told the assistant principal the student never tapped her on the elbow. In an interview with the school resource officer, the child admitted, “He wanted to go longer than the other students, and everything went black,” the warrant said.
“There was no intent to harm any students here. This was something that—it might've been improvident, it might've been something that every teacher might not have done. But this is a teacher with a reputation and a comfort level that she's earned over many years, and people love her,” Russell told News 12.
According to the warrant, the assistant principal told police Sanabria admitted "a lack of judgement" in demonstrating the defensive moves. Norwalk Public Schools Spokesperson Emily Morgan said Sanabria resigned from her position shortly after her arrest March 3.
“The safety of our students is our first concern, and we immediately investigated the situation involving Ms. Sanabria when it occurred,” Morgan said in a statement.
The school nurse was called to the classroom for a child fainting as soon as it happened, the warrant stated. She told police when she arrived, the student was “alert and conscious but appeared a little shaken.” The nurse said she brought the student to her office where she took his vital signs and noted his blood pressure was elevated. She also told police the student said his vision was “fuzzy” and “he could not see,” but when he calmed down, he was sent to the gym, according to the warrant.
Russell said Sanabria is a good teacher with a 20-year career that includes awards, distinctions and good reviews. He told News 12 there’s been an outpouring of support for her including from the teacher’s union.
“Our hope is that as time progresses, the evidence will come out and people will come to their senses and the case will resolve,” Russell said.