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San Diego Unified Investigates Allegations Of Corporal Punishment

District denies incident was corporal punishment

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

Credit: Google

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

San Diego Unified Investigates Allegations Of Corporal Punishment

GUEST:

Megan Burks, education reporter, KPBS News

Transcript

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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