Common sense leaving education: 6-year-old branded with sexual assailant label

26 Jan

In Inappropriate discipline: The first step on the road to education failure, moi said:

Joan Gausted of the University of Oregon has an excellent article in Eric Digest 78, School Discipline

School discipline has two main goals: (1) ensure the safety of staff and students, and (2) create an environment conducive to learning. Serious student misconduct involving violent or criminal behavior defeats these goals and often makes headlines in the process. However, the commonest discipline problems involve noncriminal student behavior (Moles 1989).The issue for schools is how to maintain order, yet deal with noncriminal student behavior and keep children in school.

Alan Schwartz has a provocative article in the New York Times about a longitudinal study of discipline conducted in Texas. In School Discipline Study Raises FreshQuestions

The New York Times has a report about a case from West Contra Costa Unified School District which is an example of the question of whether common sense has left education.

Scott James reports in the New York Times article, A Touch During Recess, and Reaction Is Swift:

It started as schoolyard roughhousing during recess, with one boy’s hand allegedly touching the upper thigh, or perhaps the groin, of another. There were no reported witnesses, and it remains unclear if anyone complained, but the principal immediately suspended the student, placing the incident on the boy’s record as a case of “sexual assault.” The children involved were first graders — the purported assailant just 6.

It’s really overzealous,” Levina Subrata, the accused boy’s mother (they do not share the same last name), said of the incident last month at Lupine Hills Elementary, a public school in Hercules. “They were playing tag. There’s no intent to do any sort of sexual assault.”

The school’s principal, Cynthia Taylor, did not respond to an interview request. Marin Trujillo, a spokesman for the West Contra Costa Unified School District, which includes Hercules, said officials were barred from speaking about student and personnel matters. However, he added, “We must take any allegation of assault involving a child very seriously.”

Ms. Subrata provided a copy of the suspension notice, which shows what appears to be the principal’s signature and the conclusion: “Committed or attempted to commit a sexual assault or sexual battery.”

That such adult criminal intent was applied to a matter involving young children has caused a stir in this tidy East Bay suburb, a place so orderly that traffic signals halt every car at every light.

Ms. Subrata, fearful that being branded with a sex offense could ruin her son’s future, sought advice via the Berkeley Parents Network, a popular online forum for area families. An avalanche of vitriol followed….

Experts said such incidents are not isolated, but rather part of an emerging national trend. A similar case caused a sensation in Boston in November when a 7-year-old faced sexual harassment charges for kicking another boy his age in the groin during a fight.

Due to heightened concerns over bullying in recent years — spurred by a public awareness campaign following several child suicides — school administrators now feel pressure to act boldly in cases where students might face harassment.

Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy institute, said the antibullying efforts are well intentioned, but, “the policies being adopted set forth pretty strong rules regarding categories of behavior,” he said. “This means there’s less room, and more risk, for principals who would make sensible accommodations based on student age and the circumstances in question.”

Indeed, calling a matter “sexual” when a first-grader is involved seems at odds with California statutes that indicate that such intent can only be applied to children who are in fourth grade or older.

Stuart Lustig, a board-certified child psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, said that in general it is quite common, normal even, for young children to touch each other’s genital areas. “It’s curiosity,” he said. “It’s not sexual in the adult sense.”

Dr. Lustig added that it would only become a concern if a young child does not stop when told the behavior is inappropriate. However, he said he had heard of cases where schools have acted immediately to discipline youngsters, even over a single schoolyard kiss. “Schools can sometimes respond very strongly because of the legal environment,” he said.

Mr. Hess predicted that questionable actions by schools in such cases would soon become a significant education concern. “We’re putting educators in an untenable position,” he said. “They’re being asked to squelch out every iota of bad behavior, but without overreacting or stomping on childhood.”

The Council of State Governments (CGS) released a ground breaking report of discipline in Texas. This report contains not only valuable information, but raises several questions.

In the press release, CSG Justice Center Releases New Report on How School Discipline Relates to Academic and Juvenile Justice Outcomes, the CSG reports:

In an unprecedented study of nearly 1 million Texas public secondary school students followed for more than six years, nearly 60 percent were suspended or expelled, according to a report released today by the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center in partnership with the Public Policy Research Institute of Texas A&M University.

Of the nearly 1 million public secondary school students studied, about 15 percent were suspended or expelled 11 times or more; nearly half of these students with 11 or more disciplinary actions were involved in the juvenile justice system. 

  • Only three percent of the disciplinary actions were for conduct in which state law mandated suspensions and expulsions; the rest were made at the discretion of school officials primarily in response to violations of local schools’ conduct codes. 
  • African-American students and those with particular educational disabilities were disproportionately disciplined for discretionary actions. 
  • Repeated suspensions and expulsions predicted poor academic outcomes. Only 40 percent of students disciplined 11 times or more graduated from high school during the study period, and 31 percent of students disciplined one or more times repeated their grade at least once. 
  • Schools that had similar characteristics, including the racial composition and economic status of the student body, varied greatly in how frequently they suspended or expelled students.

  Download the full report in PDF:  “Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement

Dore Francis has a guide, which lists what parents should do if their child is suspended. The guide gives detailed instructions to these steps and other steps.

Get the Facts

1.        Immediately contact the school and request: 1) a copy of the student’s school records, including records for attendance, grades, and any past discipline; 2) a copy of any administrator’s, teacher’s, or student’s statements about the charge/incident; and 3) a copy of the school’s or district’s disciplinary policies in writing (if they have not as yet been provided to you). Review these materials and note anything you want to ask your child or the school about that may include issues relevant to the current situation.

2.        School administrators must provide students with notice of the charges against them, the basis for the charge, and an opportunity to tell his/her side of the story.

3.        Talk with your son or daughter. Ask him/her to tell you (or even better to write out) exactly what happened as soon as possible so you have a clear understanding of the details related to the incident. Make sure he/she is being honest about what happened.

Meet with School Officials

1.        Call the principal or assistant principal who gave the suspension and ask for a face-to-face meeting at a time that is convenient for you. Ask for whatever accommodation you need to enable you to participate fully in the meeting, for example, if you need to meet in the evening or need a translator if you do not speak English. There are five good reasons to request and attend a face-to-face meeting: to learn more of the facts around the incident, to verify that your child is being treated fairly, to ensure that your child is taking responsibility for his/her actions, to ensure that your child’s educational progress is not adversely affected, and to learn of any opportunities or services that may help your child, such as counseling or other types of social, educational, or health services.

2.        Do not go alone to the meeting. Take someone with you who can serve as an advocate and provide you with support or make you feel more comfortable. This might be a friend, neighbor, community service agency representative, or clergy. Make sure that the school official is informed that this person will be present at the meeting.

3.        Approach the meeting with an open mind and a firm commitment not to argue or raise your voice.

4.        Write down any questions you have before the meeting and bring your list with you so you can ask your questions and have them answered at the meeting.

Questions that parents may want to ask about the situation:

1.        What rule did my child break? May I see this rule in writing? What did my child do to break the rule?

2.        What is the normal punishment for breaking this rule? Is there a different punishment for the first, second, or third violation of this rule? Are these things in writing?

3.        Why is my child receiving extra punishment?

4.        Where was my child when this happened? Who was the teacher in charge? Where was the teacher when the incident happened?

5.        What other students or employees were around when this happened? What are their accounts of the incident?

6.        Were other students involved in this incident? What punishment did the other students receive? Why is their punishment different?

7.        Exactly what did each person do? Exactly what did each person say?

8.        Could the teacher have handled this differently?

9.        Has my child had similar problems before? Is this documented in writing?

10.     Will this punishment cause my child to fail a class or be held back?

11.     Can my child make up his schoolwork and tests?

12.     What can the school do to help my child and avoid this problem in the future? For example, may my child change his seat in class or be transferred to a different class? 

Francis has this advice if you take your son or daughter to meet with school officials.

           Take your son/daughter to the meeting with you if he/she can act respectfully and take responsibility for his/her actions. He/she must admit if he/she was wrong and violated a school rule.

Do not admit wrongdoing and do not let your son/daughter admit wrongdoing unless it is true.

If your son or daughter admits wrongdoing, consider or ask what can be done to “make things right.” For example, is an apology to a teacher or another student in order, or is there some other action your son or daughter may take to correct or make amends for the situation? If so, have your son or daughter follow through on this.

Francis also lists what questions to ask after meeting with school officials.

The focus at this point should be how best to address the behavior issues that could result in a disciplinary action. Discipline should be the last resort.


Education Law Center

Discipline In Schools: What Works and What Doesn’t?

Justice for Children and Youth has a pamphlet I’m being expelled from school – what are my rights?

Alternatives to Suspension

Fourth Grader Suspended Over ‘Kick Me’ Sign Prank

School Suspension for a Crush? Not Cute

Dr. Wilda says this about that ©


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