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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.”
Later, when he and other parents went to the school board to complain about the punishment, they say they were “demeaned” by the majority of the school board. “We were treated like dirt,” Fleming said. “One of them actually laughed at me.”
Marian Ellison's granddaughter attends the fourth grade at Shirley Elementary. In November of last year, the girl was diagnosed with scarlet fever. In the process of trying to find out where the girl might have caught it, Ellison's granddaughter mentioned that she and three other students were made to clean the bathroom at school after they were accused of stopping up the toilet and making it overflow. Though Ellison said she assumed that meant “they put a mop in her hand,” the girl later told her that she had been made to scrub toilets and floors with a toothbrush, without the benefit of gloves (Robinson, Coleman and the two custodians who oversaw the girls' punishment heartily dispute this).
Ellison said that even if the girls were guilty of stopping up a toilet, the punishment crossed the line. “Even if they did, should they have been made to do this?” Ellison said. “If I had done this to my granddaughter in my home, if she were to go to school and tell this, DHHS would have stepped in. My granddaughter would have been taken away from me and I would have been put in jail.” When she tried to take her concerns to the school board, Ellison said she was told that she should have followed “the chain of command” with her complaint.
Like Marian Ellison, Delories Haney is raising her grandchildren, one of them a sixth-grader at Shirley Elementary. Until Cindy Coleman came to the school last year, Haney said, her girls' time there had been mostly happy and trouble free. The day we spoke, she had just pulled them out of Shirley schools and moved to the Clinton school district.
“I just got tired of worrying what was going to happen to them every day,” Haney said. “If they feel like they can just make up the rules, what are they going to think of next? Sweat boxes?”
While Haney is a believer in paddling, she said punishing students by making them run up and down the stairs is cruelty. She said she first heard of the new punishment in mid-January, when her granddaughter came home from school, complaining of pain in her feet and ankles. She had been made to run up and down the steps, the girl told Haney, because she had fallen asleep in class. Earlier in the day, Haney said, Principal Coleman had called her at work, inquiring whether her granddaughter's medication might be making her drowsy in class. Haney says that Coleman didn't mention, however, that she was going to punish the girl, or how. Haney took the girl to the doctor, where she was diagnosed with bruised heels. When she later called the school to complain about the girl being forced to run the steps, she was told that the girl's injuries were her fault for not sending the child to school in “appropriate footwear” for PE.
“This is not PE, this is punishment,” Haney said. “When I created a stink over it, and said my child is not running up the steps, they sent out a letter and made everybody swear that all they were doing is walking. That's a blatant lie.”
Randy Cox is the founder of neverhitachild.org, a Little Rock-based non-profit dedicated to ending corporal punishment in schools. He said that while Shirley school administrators might be trying to find an alternative to paddling or suspending students, they're likely doing more harm than good by making kids walk stairs as punishment.
“Forced exercise associates ‘bad' with something that ought to be good for us,” Cox said, adding that it could set up a pattern where kids are mentally conditioned to avoid exercise later in life. In addition, Cox said, it's dangerous and reckless to make a child perform a strenuous and repetitive physical activity with no regard to the child's ability or health. While school districts often allow parents to opt their children out of physical punishments by signing a form, Cox said this strikes him as backwards from the way a caring community should behave. “Our teachers should be demonstrating how best to guide our children, and encourage them and help them be successful citizens,” Cox said. “But with corporal punishment, that's not the way it happens. The schools turn that around and say, ‘The parents want us to do it.'”
Shirley Superintendent Jack Robinson disputes claims that children were ever made to run up and down the steps, and said the story of girls forced to scrub toilets with a toothbrush never happened. He said that a small group of parents have banded together to discredit Coleman, whom he called one of the best elementary school principals he has ever seen. What those parents don't like, Robinson said, is that Coleman holds everyone accountable.
“If you're lax, and you're not used to being held accountable as a parent, then you might get very mad,” Robinson said.
Robinson said the stair walking was instituted as an alternative to paddling or suspending students. “This is good physical exercise,” he said. “Instead of going out and doing jumping jacks, they're going to walk the stairs. What they're doing — part of it — is they're being separated from their friends. That's what they don't like.” While he admits that parents were not initially told about the new punishment system until Coleman and the school's two sixth-grade teachers “determined that they liked it,” he said that students have never been made to run up and down the stairs.
Coleman said that stair-walking was instituted after sixth grade teachers came to her asking for an alternative to in-school suspension, and help with constant rule breakers. Before the new punishment was instituted, Coleman said that teachers were taking up so much of their day dealing with troublemakers that it approached “educational neglect.” She said that before the punishment was approved, the sixth grade only had three to four students per week whose conduct score consistently topped 90 points. “Now we have probably 30 every week,” she said. “You tell me that's not an improvement? That means more instruction is taking place.”
Coleman said that she and the sixth grade teachers found that stair walking worked only after experimenting with several alternatives. After the punishment was found to be effective, they sent home notes to parents.
Of 38 students in the sixth grade, Coleman said the parents of only four chose to opt out. Like Robinson, she denies that children were ever made to run. Students are never made to walk more than 25 to 30 minutes at a time, she said. Coleman said that she doesn't consider walking the stairs a corporal punishment. What makes it effective, she said, is that it separates the rule breakers from their regular PE time, which would normally be spent with their friends. Even though it appears to be successful, she said that she has no plans to expand the punishment beyond the sixth grade “unless it is necessary.”
As for the girl who said she had been made to scrub toilets with a toothbrush, Coleman called the story “a total lie.” The girls in question flooded a bathroom by stopping up a toilet, and were punished by being made to clean the floors and toilets, Coleman said. But she insists that they used mops and toilet brushes, and were overseen at all times by the school custodians. Two custodians backed Coleman.
Coleman said she didn't understand why Marian Ellison went to the school board with her concerns before seeing her. “This is a grandmother who has never had a problem calling me,” Coleman said, “calling me at home, calling me on my cell phone or coming to my office. Then, all of a sudden, she shows up at a board meeting saying this?”
In the end, Robinson said, the complaints about the new policy come from Fleming, Haney and other disgruntled parents thinking they know what's best for other people's children. Everyone would be better off, he said, if they'd focus on what's best for their own.
“You can't make decisions for other parents,” Robinson said. “If you decide to opt out, then it should be over for you.”