Textbook case of discipline viewed with praise, criticism
An expert calls educators' handling of a misbehaving girl admirable. But some wonder: Why not corporal punishment?
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published April 23, 2005
ST. PETERSBURG - What parent hasn't tried this trick on stubborn children: Tell them it's time to go, pretend you're leaving and hope they follow.
Two educators tried the tactic last month in the case of a 5-year-old girl at Fairmount Park Elementary. Twice it failed.
The pair used a range of other strategies in an hourlong ordeal, about 30 minutes of which were caught on a videotape released this week by a lawyer for the girl's mother. Some of their "interventions" appeared to work, others did not.
Although administrators and many teachers are trained in dealing with misbehaving children, educators say they have no sure formula for success, especially in such an extreme case.
At Fairmount Park on March 14, the girl swung several times at assistant principal Nicole Dibenedetto and teacher Patti Tsaousis. She created a mess wherever she went and generally refused to cooperate. She eventually was handcuffed by St. Petersburg police, who were called to the school.
"She's a little girl who wants to be in control," Carol Thomas, an assistant superintendent in charge of Pinellas elementary schools, said while viewing the video this week. "It was very deliberate behavior.
Lynette Fields, a professor at the University of South Florida's College of Education, called it "a very trying situation in the real world."
Thomas said Dibenedetto and Tsaousis handled the case admirably, setting limits for the girl but also giving her options and praising the positive decisions she made amid the bad ones. Thomas also offered suggestions for what else might have been tried.
Instead of counting to five out loud, as Dibenedetto did to coax the girl to act, Thomas said she might have counted in her head to give the girl more leeway.
Another alternative: ignoring the child.
But Thomas said that strategy is risky because it requires an unbending commitment. If you give up on it to prevent a child from getting hurt, it results in "intermittent reinforcement," Thomas said, which only strengthens bad behavior.
Fields said it appeared Dibenedetto and Tsaousis took a page from the philosophy espoused in the book, Parenting with Love and Logic, which gave rise to the Love and Logic Institute.
The Love and Logic philosophy discourages the "drill sergeant" and "helicopter" styles of parenting. The first one commands and directs children, the latter hovers and rescues them from mistakes.
The Love and Logic style encourages children to talk about their feelings, make their own decisions and complete required tasks within loose "time frames."
It is a philosophy that surely grates on those who said during the robust public discussion following the videotape's release that the girl was in need of corporal punishment.
In letters to the St. Petersburg Times, on Internet postings and in talk radio debates, many expressed outrage Friday that the educators at Fairmount Park seemed hamstrung by concerns about touching the girl or being too stern.
Among the dynamics at work that day: two school staffers were forced to focus exclusively on the girl during dismissal, one of the busiest and most stressful times of the day; the girl's behavior had prompted the school to call city police a few days earlier, and the mother had complained.
District officials said that in the future Pinellas schools police should be notified because they are accustomed to dealing with students.
Florida law still allows corporal punishment but leaves the decision to school districts. Many districts abandoned the practice years ago because of liability concerns, Fields said. Pinellas is one of them.
Even the law that allows corporal punishment is fraught with caution. An educator may administer it only with another adult present. That adult must be told - in the presence of the student - of the reason for the punishment. Parents can request a written explanation.
Pinellas educators are told they may use "reasonable force" to protect themselves, a student or anyone else from harm. But, in practice, that translates to a simpler rule of thumb: no touching at all.
"That's a good rule for anyone to follow when dealing with somebody else's children," Fields said.
Pinellas elementary schools reported 406 disciplinary referrals for batteries on adults last school year, up from 272 the year before. Many are repeat offenses from a smaller group of children who chronically misbehave.
"Some schools call them "frequent fliers,' " said Bob Poth, principal of Douglas L. Jamerson Jr. Elementary.
"The bottom line is that if a child is misbehaving, learning is not taking place," Poth said. "We only have 180 days with the kids. We can't afford to have them fooling around."
Times staff writer Donna Winchester contributed to this report.
[Last modified April 23, 2005, 00:54:19]
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