Senators table bill proposing ban on corporal punishment in public schools
Published: October 9, 2013
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ST. CROIX - The Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee took up the question of a proposed ban on corporal punishment in Virgin Islands schools on Tuesday but ultimately decided to hold the bill in committee for further consideration.
The discussion on the bill was wide-ranging, with more than one speaker recommending changes to the legislation.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Judi Buckley, would prevent anyone from administering corporal punishment to students on a public school campus.
It states that no one shall inflict any form of corporal punishment on a student attending a school or institution, then lists certain exceptions to the rule, including stopping a disturbance that is threatening physical injury to others; to obtain possession of weapons or other dangerous objects; for the purpose of self defense; and for the protection of persons and property.
The bill seeks to make public schools a "safe haven," where no one - including parents - would administer corporal punishment.
Buckley said that she doesn't want to remove discipline from schools, but she wants to see an end to corporal punishment.
"We actually don't know how often it's being administered, because there's no transparency," she said.
Testimony indicated that corporal punishment was not used often in local schools, but no one had exact numbers.
Acting Assistant Commissioner of Education Sarah Mahurt said that the department fully supports the legislation.
"It must be communicated clearly that violence through inflicting physical pain is not an acceptable way to change student behavior," she said.
"While the department does not condone misbehavior in our schools, our focus must be on discipline which aims to change behavior and not punishment which only inflicts pain," Mahurt said.
She offered a number of recommendations for improving the bill, including separating out the so-called "exceptions" in the bill to the corporal punishment ban.
She said those situations do not constitute corporal punishment. Instead, they identify scenarios "wherein reasonable force or restraint may be necessary," Mahurt said.
Other suggestions from the Education Department included making the law apply to all schools - not just public schools - and also making it applicable to persons in the delivery of service to students, such as bus drivers and chaperones.
Mahurt recommended some additional scenarios where reasonable force might be necessary, recommended adding a definition of corporal punishment and pointed out another place where the law would need to be changed for consistency.
The American Federation of Teachers gave a brief testimony describing the union's issue with the proposed ban.
Rosa Soto-Thomas, president of the St. Croix American Federation of Teachers, said that the bill lacks clarity, leaves too many things open to interpretation and invites perpetual lawsuits against the government and others.
She said she'd like to see the law stay as it is which would mean that corporal punishment would not be outlawed. She also said she'd like to see the Education Department consistently implement the policies that exist.
Deborah Vagins, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union Washington Legislative Office, spoke about the ACLU's work to bring an end to corporal punishment in U.S. schools.
She described it as a national problem and said corporal punishment is still legal in 19 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam.
"Aside from the infliction of pain and the physical injuries which often result from the use of physical punishments, these violent disciplinary methods impact students' academic achievement and long-term well-being," she said.
Vagins also said that nationwide, black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately subjected to corporal punishment, "hampering their access to a supportive learning environment and increasing the likelihood of ending up in the criminal justice system - fueling what we call the school-to-prison pipeline."
A number of senators voiced mixed feelings about the proposal, raising questions about the implications it may have.
A last resort
School officials testified that corporal punishment is only used as a last resort - and is only supposed to be done by a principal or assistant principal.
However, the policy is applied differently in the territory's two districts.
St. Croix Insular Superintendent Gary Molloy said that the biggest problem with corporal punishment on school campuses within the district is consistency.
St. Thomas-St. John Superintendent Jeanette Smith-Barry said she has made it "abundantly clear" in her district that corporal punishment is not to be used.
She said that in all instances where an issue of corporal punishment has come before her, there was "evidence of a clear abuse of authority," making her "even more convinced" that corporal punishment in schools needs to be abandoned.
"It is part of our culture," she said. "But our culture has changed. For one thing, children are hitting back."
Ultimately, Buckley moved to hold the bill in committee for further consideration, and she and Senators Donald Cole, Myron Jackson, Nereida Rivera-O'Reilly, Tregenza Roach and Sammuel Sanes voted yes. Committee member Sen. Janette Millin-Young was absent.
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