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San Diego Unified Investigates Allegations Of Corporal Punishment

A screenshot from Google Maps shows Horton Elementary School, Dec. 5, 2016.
Google
A screenshot from Google Maps shows Horton Elementary School, Dec. 5, 2016.

District denies incident was corporal punishment

San Diego Unified Investigates Allegations Of Corporal Punishment
San Diego Unified Investigates Allegations Of Corporal Punishment GUEST: Megan Burks, education reporter, KPBS News

The ACLU is calling it corporal punishment. The San Diego unified school district says it was physical education. The incident that prompted a letter from the ACLU involved fourth and fifth graders at Horton Elementary School in Chollas View. In October of this year about 35 kids were told by the principal to leave the school's cafeteria and hold an exercise position on the school's patio. Megan Burks is here to tell us the various ways that incident is being interpreted. Welcome to the program making. Hello. Why were these kids to leave the cafeteria. We're still tried to figure out the facts but from what we hear a child wanted to use the bathroom pass and he could not get a teacher's attention or a volunteer's attention so he grabbed it from the pocket and in the process he may have hit her and that caused all of the kids to get rowdy. The principal came in and said we have to fix this and what would normally be a free recess time was a more structured PE recess. Kind of exercise position where they told to assume. It was a plank holding a push-up position with your hands on the ground. What parents are complaining about is that their children had their hands on hot black tops and had blisters on their hand from that sheet. Were some of them injured? Their hands were inflamed and read and according to the ACLU letter on this matter one child had a broken arm or injury before and this worsened it. This did not just happen once stated? This amended recess or cancellation of recess happened over three days. Some of the children say as this went on they took precautions trying not to burn their hands again on what they described as a scolding blacktop. Right. In the ACLU's letter and parents who are familiar with situations kids said they needed to take mittens to school to lay on the blacktop. Did parents complain to the school about this? Parents try to talk to the principal about it. The principal said this Friday we are having a principal coffee and let's talk about it there. Parents went and they disrupted the agenda that was in process and said let's talk about this. They did discuss the incident there. Ultimately a handful of the parents were given stayaway letters after that principal coffee. What is a stayaway letter? It's a restraining order against the school. The parents were banned from going to the school campus for 14 days. This is something that is in the California education code. Schools can do this. They do not need a judges order. From reading the ACLU letter they make the claim that the stayaway letter is only supposed to be used as a last resort for an incredibly unruly sort of parent interaction. Is supposed to be applied only to peers who pose a threat or danger to the school campus. They are girding in this case disrupting a visit want a letter. Have the parents been able to go back to the school and talk about this incident in another form? Yes, the stayaway order has been lifted. Additionally the district says it did reach out to parents during the time they were banned from the school to say let's get together and resolve this. Your ban will be lifted. The district says the parents did not respond. I know a lot of these parents are Spanish speakers. At this time they were going to district headquarters to talk to people. It may be that signals got crossed and so they did not get the message that the district was reaching out. How did the ACLU get involved in this? The parents complain about this back in October I did not get a response that satisfy them. They went ahead and talk to the ACLU and that's how the letter came about. What is the school district? What is San Diego unified thing about this? They are saying they are investigating the matter. There is an office in the district that offers handle complaints but at the same time the message from the central office is this was not corporal punishment. They are saying this is standard physical education and in no way is corporal punishment. They say it's not allowed under California law and the district says it does not happen in San Diego unified. I've been speaking with KPBS Megan Burks. Thank you.

San Diego Unified Investigates Allegations Of Corporal Punishment
Parents complained children suffered burns on their hands after Horton Elementary School's principal allegedly forced them to hold a push-up position on hot blacktop.

California Education Code 49001(a)

For the purposes of this section "corporal punishment" means the willful infliction of, or willfully causing the infliction of, physical pain on a pupil. An amount of force that is reasonable and necessary for a person employed by or engaged in a public school to quell a disturbance threatening physical injury to persons or damage to property, for purposes of self-defense, or to obtain possession of weapons or other dangerous objects within the control of the pupil, is not and shall not be construed to be corporal punishment within the meaning and intent of this section. Physical pain or discomfort caused by athletic competition or other such recreational activity, voluntarily engaged in by the pupil, is not and shall not be construed to be corporal punishment within the meaning and intent of this section.

The San Diego Unified School District is investigating allegations of corporal punishment at Horton Elementary School in Chollas View.

Parents complained their children suffered burns on their hands after the principal allegedly forced them to hold a push-up position on hot blacktop for unruly behavior on multiple occasions in October.

In a statement confirming the ongoing investigation, the district's central office denies corporal punishment occurred. It says Principal Staci Dent called off regular recess because of bad behavior and replaced it with physical education activities meant "to reinforce the importance of safety and following directions" — not to cause harm.

"San Diego Unified staff and teachers do not engage in corporal punishment. That is against our policies … Open recess was modified for fourth- and fifth-graders at the school for three days that week as a result of unruly behavior displayed by students during the lunch period on Oct. 14. Instead of free play, the students engaged in PE-type activities including jumping jacks, squat holds, as well as holding the push-up position for 10 seconds. The structured recess was an opportunity to reinforce the importance of safety and following directions, as well as engage in exercise. When asked, no student expressed concern about the blacktop being too hot, and no students reported injuries. These exercises are standard P.E.-type activities and definitely not a form of punishment."

Bardis Vakili, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, sent a letter to the district backing the claims of corporal punishment. He cited the California Education Code, which defines corporal punishment as "the willful infliction of, or willfully causing the infliction of, physical pain on a pupil."

In his letter, Vakili says Dent must have been aware the blacktop was hot, as inland temperatures that week hovered around 80 degrees. He also notes students used sweaters under their palms to block the heat.

Other parent complaints allege Dent said the students could go to juvenile hall for their behavior, therefore making the students reluctant to speak up about their pain.

Photos obtained by 10 News show a student's red and inflamed palm.

Also at issue are "stay away" notices that went out to parents who said they received them after complaining to Dent and district staff.

School administrators can temporarily ban parents from campus if they deem them a substantial threat to the school and its operations.

The district says in its statement it reached out to those who received the letters.

"The Stay Away letters expired after 14 days, just prior to the Thanksgiving break. As well, the district made several attempts to speak with the families who received these letters to rectify the issue and lift the order sooner, yet none of the families would agree to a meeting. These parents previously reported their concerns to the district Quality Assurance Office, which is currently investigating the matter. Meanwhile, district leadership is working with the parents and the principal to reach a resolution that satisfies everyone."

Between 2008 and 2011, administrators in San Diego Unified issued 74 "stay away" letters, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. That's compared to numbers in the single digits for other, smaller districts.

"The question is whether parents should have access to campus to get answers on what's happening to their children," Vakili said. "We want to make sure that not only are the children safe, but that parents who want to be involved and should be involved in their kids' education are not being arbitrarily kept away from doing that."

"(We're going to) continue to monitor the situation, await the results of the investigation and then reassess at that point," Vakili said.

A district spokeswoman said there is no estimate for when staff will complete the investigation.

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