Teacher suspended for washing student's mouth out with soap
By Ben Dobbin, Associated Press Writer
CBSNEWYORK.COM, June 10, 2004

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) Elementary school teacher Lori Thomas was placed on paid leave for dishing out some old-fashioned discipline washing a boy's mouth out with a dab of soap after he shouted an obscenity at a classmate.

More than three months later, she is still barred from the classroom, and her frustration with the school district's own disciplinary procedures has convinced her to take to the street.

``If I can't teach from the classroom, I'll teach by example,'' read a sandwich board she carried back and forth as she picketed Wednesday outside the district's offices.

Thomas, 48, who has taught for six years at inner-city School 22, said she was stunned when a 10-year-old pupil directed ``a vile, very nasty sexual reference'' at a girl as third-graders shuffled back into class from a playground break in March.

The boy had frequently been sent home for unruly behavior minutes earlier, he tried without success to pick a fight with another boy, Thomas said. But rather than let him get his way and earn another one-week suspension, Thomas decided to try something her mother taught her.

``Old-fashioned ways work,'' she said unapologetically.

She took the boy to the nurse's office, she said, ``put a drop of soap of his lower lip, washed it out immediately and told him I never wanted to hear filth like that coming out of his mouth again.''

The boy behaved for the remainder of the day ``as we were walking back to class, the child was smiling, he knew I cared about him'' and didn't complain to his foster mother, Thomas said. District officials, she said, learned about what had happened from the boy's brother.

Thomas was suspended indefinitely. A district official said an investigation will likely be wrapped up within two weeks.

``I wish we could have handled this more expeditiously too,'' acknowledged Joanne Giuffrida, personnel chief in the 6,000-employee school district. ``It's just a question of apportioning our resources.''

Although Thomas hasn't been charged, her plight remains unclear. The district could either fire her even though tenure provides such teachers ``a lot of protection'' or level ``a lesser amount of discipline,'' Giuffrida said.

Under New York law, schools must report ``any possible allegations of child abuse that occur in a school setting,'' Giuffrida said. Teachers generally resort to physical contact with students only in extreme cases aimed at ensuring ``the child's safety or the safety of others.''

``I have always thought of `washing your mouth out with soap' as an expression, not an option,'' said Adam Urbanski, president of the teachers' union.

The district's code of conduct forbids corporal punishment and ``it's for the school district to consider whether they consider this corporal punishment,'' Urbanski said.

``We think the district acted appropriately'' in launching an investigation, he said, but ``it is no revelation to me that the district is slow.''

More than 40 parents and relatives of children in Thomas' class have asked for her to be reinstated. ``We would rather have her back,'' wrote one girl's aunt, Juanita McMillan.

``I stay with my students for three years,'' Thomas said. ``Many parents request their child be in my classroom because they know I'm strict and I teach more than reading and writing and arithmetic. I teach self-respect, I teach them to believe in themselves.''

Teaching is ``such a passion for me,'' added Thomas, a single parent of three who was accompanied Wednesday by her 19-year-old son, Daniel, who expects to enlist in the Army in July.

``My mom loves these kids,'' he said, recalling one occasion years ago when she put soap in his mouth to teach him an abiding lesson. ``She treats them with the same respect and dignity as she gave us.''

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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