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San Diego Unified: Incident At Horton Elementary Was Not 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.

Parents complained in October their children were injured after being forced to hold a plank position on hot blacktop as punishment.

San Diego Unified has dismissed claims of corporal punishment at Horton Elementary School in Chollas View. The district launched an investigation into the school after parents complained their kids were forced to hold a plank position on hot blacktop as punishment for being unruly at lunch.

The complaints say some fourth- and fifth-graders suffered burns on their hands after holding the pose. They further allege Principal Staci Dent suggested the children could face juvenile detention if they did not comply.

In a formal response to one of the complaints, submitted by education activist Sally Smith, the district says witnesses did not corroborate that threat. Rather, Dent explained to the students that failing to remediate bad behavior in one’s youth could lead to trouble with the law later on in life.

School staff described the children’s behavior — sparked when a student allegedly took a bathroom pass without permission — as a "riot," "chaos" and a "mob mentality and dangerous situation."

The district also says in its response the incident was not corporal punishment because Dent took precautions to prevent injury.

Corporal punishment is defined as “the willful infliction of, or willfully causing the infliction of, physical pain on a pupil … 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.”

Students could opt out of the exercise, the response says, and several adults monitored their well being during the pose. Dent also stopped including planks in the workout routine, which occurred during recess on three days in October, when a student developed a blister.

“The fact that the Principal changed the activity on the third day because there was a report of a blister, although the origin of the blister could not be determined, demonstrates she was taking precautionary measures to protect students and to prevent injury,” the response said.

Smith said the district’s conclusion is troubling.

“The district's response was shocking,” she said. “Its statement that the children started a riot, were dangerous and had a mob-mentality is ludicrous. Instead on focusing on the real issue — the violation of the civil rights of these children by the principal — the district is shifting the blame onto the children. How ugly is that?”

Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties sent the district a letter calling for an investigation and apology. Staff attorney Bardis Vakili said parent accounts of the incident sounded like corporal punishment.

In an email Thursday, he also took issue with the words witnesses used to describe the events leading up to the incident.

"In an elementary school made up of over 90 percent students of color, the report that district officials used loaded words like 'riot,' 'mob mentality' and 'dangerous' to describe misbehaving ten-year old children, if true, is tragic," Vakili said.

Vakili said he was also disappointed the district didn't respond to concerns about so-called "stay away" letters that went out to parents who complained, banning them from the school for several days. It is legal for school administrators in California to issue such letters if they believe it is necessary to maintain safety and order at the school site.

"These letters are only lawful in extraordinary circumstances and if strict procedural protections are in place for the parents, neither of which was the case here," Vakili said. "As I understand it, the parents’ access to Horton school grounds has now been restored, but we will continue to monitor the use of 'stay away' letters to ensure that the rights of concerned parents will be protected moving forward."

The district's response addresses Smith's complaints point-by-point. I does respond to allegations the principal had campus police deliver the letters to parents. "The Principal, other school personnel, and private citizens can call the police when they feel it necessary," the response says.

A district spokeswoman said earlier this month staff will continue working to bring together parents and administrators.

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