2009-06-05 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

What Constitutes Corporal Punishment?
Commentary By Howard Schwach

It is clear to me that corporal punishment - using force to punish inappropriate behavior - is wrong.

Even though recent movies and newspaper articles have glorified strong school leaders who turned their schools into a Garden of Eden by using a paddle to solidify school behavior, it is never right to strike a student who has transgressed school rules, or even common decency.

Given that corporal punishment is wrong, the next question must be, "What constitutes corporal punishment?"

I once thought that I knew the answer.

To my mind, after teaching in some very dangerous schools for 25 years, corporal punishment entailed striking a student who had committed a transgression either in anger or as a punishment.

I thought that was clear. Added to that belief was another: that nobody, student, parent or administrator, had the right to a free swing in my direction. More on that later, however.

The question I posed above as to what constitutes corporal punishment is not clear. The issue is as cloudy as a foggy day on Beach Channel Drive.

Here are some examples of why I say that, and they come from my real-life experiences in the local schools.

Take for example, the teacher who was monitoring a local school's cafeteria.

He noticed that some young girls were screaming and looking under the table at which they were sitting.

He walked over and found that a teenage boy was under the table, grabbing at the ankles of the girls and looking under their skirts.

He ordered the boy to come out. The boy refused, calling him some vile names in the process.

He grabbed the boy by the leg and pulled him from under the table. He took the boy to the dean's office and described the problem. He left, thinking it would be handled by the dean.

Two hours later, when he left school for the day, two detectives from the local precinct were there to arrest him for assaulting a child.

He was suspended by the Department of Education for using corporal punishment and sent to an earlier version of the rubber room, where he remained for several months, until a judge laughed off his case and dismissed it at a preliminary hearing.

After the judge threw out the case, it would have been difficult for the DOE to pursue the corporal punishment case, but it did for several more weeks, until it too admitted that the charges were ridiculous under the circumstances.

Next, take the case of another Rockaway teacher who wound up suspended on charges of corporal punishment.

He walked to the coat closet in his special education classroom one day during a free period and found a student literally hanging around in the large closet. The student had tucked his shirt collar around one of the metal posts used to hang up the coats. His feet were touching the floor, and he was in no danger, and the teacher ordered him out of the closet, telling him that what he did was "stupid," and that he could have hurt himself.

The next day, the teacher, who had two dozen years in the system and was always rated satisfactory, was brought up on charges of "verbal corporal punishment" for calling the student "stupid," even though he did not.

It seems that the rule had changed. No longer did corporal punishment have to be physical. Now, it could be verbal. Calling a kid "stupid" or "lazy" or even calling his or her work "sloppy" could bring charges.

The teacher eventually took a U rati and a transfer to another school rather than sit like a dummy in the rubber room for a year or more awaiting charges and their disposition.

Experts at the DOE argued that damaging a child's self-esteem by yelling at him or her was indeed corporal punishment.

Since I don't believe that self-esteem can be driven by accolades even when a student did no work to win those accolades, it follows that I don't believe that a teacher can ruin a student's selfesteem by yelling at him or her.

In fact, telling students they are wonderful and rewarding them for losing a competition or for minor achievements is the stupidest thing I ever heard. Whoops, there I go ruining the DOE's self-esteem.

What touched off this column was a story in a recent New York Times about a Brooklyn guidance counselor in trouble with the DOE over a corporal punishment charge.

The story is a good indicator of what could happen to any teacher or counselor in the system.

The counselor was walking down the hall, carrying some rolled-up reports, when he heard a commotion from a special education room.

He went into the room and found a student on his knees on a chair, cursing out the substitute teacher.

He told the student to stop and the student jumped off the chair to confront him.

The counselor says that he held the papers in his hand and pointed them at the student, but did not ever touch him with the rolled-up papers.

He was charged by his principal with corporal punishment, and given a U Rating, which prevented him from working at summer school.

A judge recently threw out the U Rating, saying that the DOE's charges were "irrational."

"Nothing on the record supports the DOE's conclusion that [the counselor]

committed a substantiated act of corporal punishment," the judge wrote, ordering that the unsatisfactory rating be annulled.

In my time in Rockaway schools, I was brought up on charges twice.

The first time was when a deranged student ran down the hall with a hammer, threatening students and staff and crashing classroom door windows as he went.

I took him down, into a classroom and over several desks. I believed at the time that I was keeping him from hurting other people. Actually, he would have hurt somebody along the way if I had not stopped him.

Since the principal did not like me or what I had written in The Wave about the school, I was brought up on charges.

They were quickly dismissed.

The second time was by a teacher who claimed that I was profiting by the school's use of a textbook that I had written years before. Those charges were dropped as soon as I proved that I was no long getting a commission on the sale of the books.

For a dozen of the years that I taught at MS 53 in Far Rockaway, I faced a cadre of emotionally disturbed teenagers, most of who lived in the Redfern Houses and who belonged to the Five Percenters. That gang believed that all white people were devils not to be listened to in any way. You get the picture.

I was assaulted with belts, knives, hammers, and once even a gun.

Once, I even had a woman with a knife come to my classroom door, sent to my room by the principal, who saw the knife, but did not want to deal with the situation himself.

I fought back each time. To my mind, striking a student (or a parent, because that has happened also) in self-defense is not corporal punishment, but I would bet that selfdefense on the part of a teacher will one day be called just that by the DOE.

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