Student suing school board over paddling
by Alain A. de la Villesbret,

February 19, 2003

A 13-year-old cheerleader is suing the St. Landry Parish School system because her principal paddled her in front of her classmates.

Stephanie E. Johnson, 169 Garnet Drive, has filed a petition for damages lawsuit in the 27th Judicial District Court against the School Board on behalf of her juvenile daughter, a student at Plaisance Elementary School. The alleged incident occurred between 10 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. in a PES classroom in November 2002. No trial date has been set.

According to court documents filed for Johnson by Mamou attorney Bruce Rozas, the incident began when Johnson got into a verbal confrontation with another student. During the mouth-off, Rozas said, Johnson called the other girl a derogatory term pertaining to females.

Teacher Nicole Laverge then called principal Larry Watson to the classroom. Watson decided to paddle Johnson on the rear end with a wooden paddle, hitting her once for each letter in the offending word. Laverge, Rozas said, then told Watson he should hit her two more times, because she used the word in the plural.

The punishment was administered in the classroom, and word of it spread throughout the school, Rozas said. Both Watson and Laverge are named in the lawsuit.

"The man (Watson) broke all of the rules pertaining to proper discipline," Rozas said. "He did not have permission from the parents, no supervisor was in attendance, he did it in front of the class, and he used extreme force that left marks and required emergency treatment. His actions were applauded and cheered on by the teacher."

Watson refused comment Tuesday afternoon, referring all questions to the central office of the school board.

"Joseph Cassimere did the investigation," said School Board Superintendent Lanny Moreau, "and he cleared Mr. Watson of all allegations. We believe Principal Watson performed his duties within the guidelines and regulations of the St. Landry Parish School Board."

Cassimere is the Assistant Superintendent of Instruction and Administration. He has direct supervisory control over the principals in the system, Moreau said.

Corporal punishment is allowed in St. Landry Parish Schools, under a policy adopted July 18, 1991, and can be administered by any teacher, principal or principal's designee to maintain discipline and order.

"The state requirements allow corporal punishment in limited instances," Rozas said. "He was far and away from complying with those rules."

There are nine regulations regulating corporal punishment:

- must be done in a fair, reasonable and impartial manner;

- student must be forewarned that a specific behavior will result in corporal punishment;

- student must be given opportunity to explain his or her actions;

- must be administered in the company of professional staff member notified beforehand;

- must be used only after other punishments have failed;

- procedures specified do not apply if the behavior is so blatant, disruptive, anti-social or flagrant in nature as to shock the conscience;

- teachers and principals must keep written records specifying when and why;

- if parents request a copy of written explanation, the principal must provide it;

- principals must hold each member of his staff accountable for understanding the regulations and administering corporal punishment.

Rozas claims that Johnson was beaten so badly that she had to be rushed to the emergency ward at Doctors' Hospital, where supposedly Dr. Gina Bagneris treated her for a hematoma to her right buttock. The suit claims that Johnson got "sustained, permanent injuries" that include duress, anguish, extreme emotional stress and humiliation.

When Watson heard that Johnson had gone to the emergency ward, Rozas said, he made fun of the girl, which intensified her anguish and humiliation.

"She's never going to be able to live this down," Rozas said. "It's one thing to have a paddling when you are six and another thing to be paddled in front of the boys and girls and with the full knowledge of the entire high school when you are a teenager. This is a cheerleader, a well-liked, average student."

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