Bryan Fleming is mad.
An insurance adjuster who lives near Fairfield Bay, Fleming has a son who attends the sixth grade at Shirley Elementary — a seemingly picture-perfect campus nestled in the hills of northeastern Van Buren County. What has Fleming angry enough to be considering relocating to Northwest Arkansas, even though he doesn't have the money to do it, is a new punishment system recently instituted by Shirley Elementary Principal Cindy Coleman. Under the new system, children who break the rules are made to walk (and originally — Fleming and other parents insist — to run) up and down a set of outdoor steps. Disgruntled parents say the children aren't given breaks, that they sometimes run or walk for up to 40 minutes at a time, and have been made to walk in frigid weather while wearing whatever clothes and shoes they came to school in that day. In another case — one that Fleming claims shows how out-of-control discipline policies at the school have become — a grandmother claims that a group of fourth-grade girls were punished by being made to scrub toilets and bathroom floors with toothbrushes.
School administrators say the stair walking is no more dangerous or strenuous than PE — and call the claims of toothbrush bathroom scrubbing a lie. Teachers have told Coleman that the stair walking is the best thing they've ever seen in terms of improving discipline. Meanwhile, Fleming said his son is afraid to go to school, and at least one parent has gone so far as to make arrangements to leave Shirley for a surrounding district. Others are considering doing the same.
The trouble started early this year, when some children began complaining to parents about a new punishment system at Shirley Elementary. There, students start the week with 100 points. Points are removed in five-point increments for infractions like chewing gum, being out of an assigned seat, talking out of turn and not turning in homework. Under what Superintendent Jack Robinson terms an “intervention” instituted to help curb consistent discipline problems in the sixth grade, whenever a student's point level drops to 85 or below, he or she is punished by being made to walk up and down a set of steps in front of the school during the twice-daily, 30-minute recess/PE period (students who score between 90 and 100 are eligible for a drawing, with the winner allowed to help out in the office as a reward).
“These things are on at least a 20-degree angle — old concrete steps,” Fleming said. “When it started, they were making them run as fast and hard as they could with no breaks. We're talking about 12-year-old kids.” Soon, Fleming said, his son started coming home telling of children who had been hurt on the stairs — bruised feet, swollen ankles and knee injuries. With a group of parents, Fleming went to talk to Robinson. Fleming said that Robinson listened to their concerns, and said the punishment would be stopped. Then, the following Monday, his son came home with a note saying that any parent who didn't want their child to be punished by walking the stairs could opt out.
“When I got the letter, I called [Robinson's] house,” Fleming said. “I said, ‘Hey, didn't we agree this was going to stop?' And he started screaming and yelling, and said, ‘Mr. Fleming, you were sent a note. You can allow your child to do this or not do this.' I said, ‘What about the other kids?' He said: ‘Mr. Fleming, you have no right to be concerned about any other child other than your own,' and he slammed the phone down.”
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