SALT LAKE CITY — A sixth grade teacher charged with child kidnapping after allegedly taking an unauthorized walk with a student off of school property calls the incident a huge misunderstanding.
“I did not kidnap a child. I followed a clearly distraught child as she left the school grounds. I felt she was not safe traveling alone,” Amy Martz said Thursday.
Martz, 49, of West Jordan, was charged with child kidnapping, a first-degree felony, on Monday. If convicted, she faces a potential sentence of 15 years to life in prison — the same sentence as a homicide conviction.
“The D.A.’s office has taken what was a very innocent interaction and turned it into a very serious crime,” defense attorney Cara Tangaro said.
Martz and her attorney responded for the first time Thursday to the charge to provide the teacher’s side of the story. They said what happened was an innocent misunderstanding. Martz read a 2 1⁄2 page prepared statement and took no questions from reporters.
“I’m shocked,” Tangaro said of the filing of the child kidnapping charge. “This is basically going from nothing to an extremely serious, life-altering charge.”
Tangaro said Martz essentially agrees with the facts of the case laid out by prosecutors. But what the case will come down to is intent, she said.
On Sept. 4, a woman reported that her 5-year-old girl, who is “autistic and mostly nonverbal” did not come home from school, according to charging documents. A short time later, Martz called Fox Hollow Elementary School and reported that she had the child with her.
She had walked into a nearby neighborhood more than half a mile away from the school, the charges state. They were gone approximately 40 minutes.
Martz said she only learned later that the child is autistic and had communication issues, including the fact that her parents speak Spanish. During her communication with the young girl, Martz said the girl spoke English.
The incident began at the end of the school day. Martz said she was outside her classroom when she saw that the girl very upset and “sobbing uncontrollably.”
There had been a water main break at the school that day, affecting the school’s water supply. Martz said the girl seemed to be upset that she could not fill up her water bottle before walking home.
That’s when Martz took the girl by the hand and attempted to help her find her way home. She said she passed the bus stop and the parent pick-up location and both times asked the girl if this is where she was supposed to go, but the girl shook her head.
They then crossed the crosswalk and continued walking.
“At each fork in the road I stopped and said, ‘Which way home?’ She would point confidently and said, ‘This way home,” Martz said.
But after awhile, Martz said “I finally realized this cute girl did not know where she was going.”
Because Martz said she had only intended to be gone for a few minutes, she left her purse and cellphone in her classroom, and even left her own child in the classroom to wait for her.
Martz said she went to a house and asked to borrow the resident’s phone to call the school and let them know what was happening. Eventually, another teacher driving through the neighborhoods looking for them picked them up and returned Martz and the girl to the school where her worried parents were waiting.
Martz said she tried to explain what had happened to the girl’s father, but she believes there was a language barrier.
“At the end, the dad asked, ‘So you just took her?’ ‘No,’ I said, and I repeated the story again. I felt that language may have been a barrier to understanding my good intentions and the safety I had provided,” Martz said.
Martz said she received a reprimand from the school. She said she requested another meeting with the parents with an interpreter present but was denied.
She said she first learned she had been charged with committing a crime when she was contacted by a local news outlet seeking comment. She then learned there was a $25,000 warrant out for her arrest and called dispatchers to find out how she could turn herself in. Martz was booked into the Salt Lake County Jail and posted bail shortly after.
In addition to teaching part time, Martz is a Utah State Bar certified attorney specializing in education law who has opened her own law practice. She was a principal in the Granite School District for 13 years and ran for office last year to represent the 42nd District in the Utah House of Representatives as a candidate for the United Utah Party. She has adopted four children of her own, including one with autism.
She believes the child kidnapping charge should be dropped.
“I had no intent to interfere with the child’s trip home. I was providing safety to what I felt was a vulnerable child because she was distraught. I did not learn until later that she had autism,” she said. “I was acting out of compassion. But I also had a duty as a school employee to provide care for this girl.
“My whole life has been about serving and helping children. I’m a rule follower. I stay safely on the side of policy and law. It’s been my job for 24 years as a teacher, as a principal, as a lawyer to children. I take responsibility and regret that the child’s parents were frightened. I was only keeping her safe,” Martz continued.
“It’s a sad commentary on our society when educators who responsibly help children are disciplined and charged with crimes. I plead with the prosecutor to drop the charges against me.”
Tangaro said her client admits she could have handled the situation differently, such as just taking the child to the principal’s office. But she also believes the penalties could be handled differently, such as simply letting the school or the district handle the situation internally, or file a misdemeanor charge such as unlawful detention.
“Could things in hindsight been maybe have been done differently? Maybe. But does it rise to the level of criminal culpability? And our answer is we don’t think so,” Tangaro said. “In my opinion, and I’m a former prosecutor, not everything needs to be criminalized. If mistakes are made or if things could have been done differently, we don’t have to jump to a first-degree felony with very serious potential consequences.”