Discipline changes proposed--Policies on fighting, paddling targeted
By Charles Lussier, Advocate Staff Writer (clussier@theadvocate.com )
The Advocate (Baton Rouge), June 18, 2002

An East Baton Rouge Parish School Board committee Monday recommended scrapping much of the public schools' policy of "zero tolerance" for fighting that now requires expulsion.

The committee also recommended banning the paddling of students. Paddling is allowed now only with a parent's permission.

The School Board will consider the recommendations July 27. If approved, the new rules would be part of the 2002-2003 edition of the school system's student handbook.

The proposal to change the zero-tolerance provision would let each principal decide whether to recommend students for expulsion after they are caught fighting. Only the School Board can expel a student.

A provision that requires the police to be called when a fight involves a student 14 years old and older would not be changed.

State law requires school systems to seek expulsion for all weapons and illegal drug violations, and that requirement also would not change.

East Baton Rouge Parish on its own took the extra step of instituting a policy of zero tolerance for fighting in 1995. Within two years, the average number of students suspended or expelled for fighting had been cut to one-quarter of its pre-1995 level.

The board's Instructional/Pupil Services Committee had little problem with the proposal Monday, voting for it unanimously. Board members on the committee are Roger Moser, Jay Devall, Ingrid Kelley and Pat Smith.

Some educators have criticized it as being inflexible and unfairly targeting minority students.

A special handbook committee has already recommended the change, mostly with the support of members who teach in elementary schools, the board's attorney, Max Kees, said.

Kees said some principals want more flexibility to decide punishment for students who fight, because fights vary in their severity.

James Machen, assistant superintendent for instruction, said that the change will put more responsibility on principals to decide the right punishment for fighting.

"It makes it much more easy and less stressful for a principal to say they have to expel the child," he acknowledged.

Machen said he plans to talk to middle and high school principals to see how they like the proposed change.

The committee had much more trouble with the proposal to ban paddling, although it approved the measure in the same unanimous vote as the zero-tolerance proposal.

Now, principals, assistant principals or their designees can give a child up to five swats with a paddle, with parents' permission. But Superintendent Clayton Wilcox proposed ending the practice.

Machen said more and more parents sue after their children are paddled.

"Some overzealous folks in school employment are putting the school system in harm's way," he said. He hastened to add that most of the worrisome cases are in other school systems, but that he and Wilcox worry that they are a sign of the future here.

Parents sign waivers, but Machen said lawyers find ways around them. Also, parents who've signed them often later disavow them when they hear from their children, he said.

The suggested change stirred a lot of debate.

"As a parent, I'm begging you all not to take corporal punishment away from the school," said Vera London, president of the parish's Parent-Teacher Association. "The Bible says spare the rod, spoil the child."

Bernadette Wilkinson, also a member of the PTA, said paddling and other forms of corporal punishment are the only things that work with some students.

"You got some kids who respond to a word, and some that don't respond to anything but a strap," she said.

Smith asked Machen what the school system plans to do instead of paddling.

"Counseling," Machen answered, sparking a derisive laughter among much of the audience.

Machen said the system also hopes to better train teachers to manage their classrooms.

Smith suggested peer counseling and peer trials, in which students judge each other and mete out punishment. "They will be harder on them than the teachers," she said.

Smith had other worries.

"Can a parent go to school and discipline their child at school?" Smith asked

"I don't see a problem with that," said Kees, the system's general counsel.

"I was told I couldn't discipline mine at school," London interjected. "They said I would have to go to the police to do that."

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