Educators and senators discussed, at times passionately, bills against corporal punishment in public schools and in favor of education to prevent bullying and gang violence at a Committee on Education and Workforce Development hearing Wednesday.
Three education bills were discussed and approved, not unanimously, by Committee Chairman Donald Cole and committee members Sens. Judi Buckley, Diane Capehart, Myron Jackson, Sammuel Sanes, Tregenza Roach, Nereida “Nellie” Rivera-O’Reilly and Janette Millin Young. Noncommittee members participating in the discussions included Sens. Clarence Payne and Shawn-Michael Malone.
The bill prohibiting corporal punishment in public schools garnered the most impassioned discussion, mainly in support of the legislation.
Bill 30-0136 bans corporal punishment in public schools except in certain cases involving personal injury, destruction of property or weapons.
Buckley introduced the bill and said that 31 states, Puerto Rico and 100 countries have laws banning corporal punishment. Currently in the territory, school personnel, acting in place of parents, can discipline students and are not required to report the incidents. Elementary students, the “most frightened age group,” are most often disciplined physically, Buckley said.
Assistant Commissioner of Education Sarah Mahurt said corporal punishment is “unacceptable.” Schools should be safe places to learn and the department will insure the law is implemented uniformly in public schools, she said.
Speaking as an educator, parent and the president of the University of the Virgin Islands, David Hall said UVI teaches education students other means of motivating pupils than physical discipline. There is no “empirical” evidence that physical punishment is the best classroom tool, he said.
“We are long past the point of believing corporal punishment is the tool for teachers to use to achieve the goals that we have,” he said. “Students and athletes do not achieve their full potential when they are operating in an atmosphere of fear.”
Also speaking in support of the bill was Joshua Murray, a senior at St. Croix Central High School.
Murray said people justify the idea of corporal punishment in the Virgin Islands by saying it’s “our culture.”
“It is telling us we are no better than slaves and have less rights than a criminal,” he said.
St. Thomas/St. John district Superintendent Jeanette Smith-Barry, an educator with 40 years experience, asked rhetorical questions about the definition of corporal punishment and how often, how frequently and how hard it was to administer. She asked if kindergarten children should be spanked and questioned what to do about an entire class that misbehaves.
“How much time should a principal spend beating students?” she asked, emotionally. “If the teacher says there is no alternative to control the class than the use of the paddle, then it’s time to leave. Too much money has been spent on training.”
Most senators agreed with Smith-Barry that “we must ban corporal punishment in schools.”
The bill was sponsored by Buckley and Rivera-O’Reilly and had been tabled at a previous hearing. This time, it squeaked by with a 4-3 vote.
Buckley, Cole, Sanes and O’Reilly voted to move the bill forward. Jackson, Roach and Millin Young voted against. Cole said amendments must be included in the bill when it reaches the full legislature.
Another bill eliciting discussion was Bill 30-0013, mandating bully prevention and gang resistance education.
Officials from the V.I. Department of Education explained that approximately $400,000 in federal funds is currently being used to provide anti-bullying education. If the bill becomes a local law, the funds won’t be lost, but the money will be directed to another program, according to Mahurt, and the V.I. government will have to pay for the program.
Mahurt talked about current anti-violence programs in public schools and presented the department’s concerns on behalf of Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory.
On St. Croix, the V.I. Police Department, Health and Human Services Department, the Woman’s Coalition and other domestic violence organizations provide programs in the schools that are “successful” in reducing violent behavior and improving test scores, according to St. Croix Superintendent Gary Molloy.
Additionally elementary school counselors have been trained to deal with bullying and secondary school counselors will be trained this year, Molloy said.
All teachers on St. Thomas and St. John have received anti-bullying training, according to that district’s superintendent. The Positive Behavior Support Intervention Program teaches discipline and life skills, she added.
Mahurt said the “issue of bullying is not taking lightly” and the department supports the intention of the bill.
Each district spent approximately $200,000 for bullying education last year, according to Mahurt.
“We won’t lose the funding; we just won’t be able to use it for something mandated by local law,” Mahurt said.
Sanes suggested supporting the mandate and, “in the upcoming funding cycle, we will see if we can find the funds.”
Voting in favor to move the bill forward were Cole, Buckley, Jackson, Rivera-O’Reilly, Sanes and Millin Young.
The third legislation, Bill 30-0174, enacting the Parents Students School Participation Program Act, was supported by senators and education officials. Act 6206 provides parents paid leave for visiting their child’s school two hours each month, as long as the visit is documented.
The bill was approved by six committee members.