Teachers protest discipline policies


A teacher wades into a schoolyard fight, pulls the children apart -- and is accused of using excessive force.

Another teacher puts a firm hand on the shoulder of a daydreaming student -- and is slapped with an abuse complaint.

Baltimore teachers say they face a rash of abuse charges stemming from routine classroom discipline. Complaints are lodged by students at all grade levels.

Once accused, a teacher is pulled from the classroom and usually reassigned to routine duties at School Department headquarters pending an investigation. Five teachers are now in that position.

Although many complaints are unfounded, it can be weeks or months until the teacher is back in the classroom, said Irene B. Dandridge, president of the 6,800-member Baltimore Teachers Union.

In one case, she said, a teacher was out of the classroom for more than a year. The result: a career was disrupted, and students suffered from the loss of their teacher.

Such problems, coupled with inadequate training for new teachers, cause a serious breakdown in discipline, said Dandridge. New teachers are leaving the system because of discipline problems, she added.

This week, Dandridge sent a letter to school Superintendent Richard C. Hunter, proposing a task force on discipline -- something the administration says it is willing to do.

"This is a crisis," Dandridge said yesterday.

In her letter, Dandridge cited recent changes in the laws on child abuse and the need for added teacher training on classroom discipline.

Yesterday, she said some teachers may shy away from disciplining students for fear of a complaint.

"We are certainly not encouraging or even suggesting that corporal punishment be allowed," she said. But "putting your hands on a child's shoulder . . . is not child abuse."

The school administration acknowledges that discipline is a problem, and is willing to work with the teachers' union, said Douglas J. Neilson, School Department spokesman.

But he also noted that corporal punishment is banned in Baltimore.

Neilson said the School Department has no intention of changing its policy of removing a teaching from classroom duties while an abuse complaint is under investigation.

So far this year, the department has logged 41 allegations of child abuse, including physical or sexual abuse, by system employees, including teachers. Of those:

* Seventeen individuals returned to their jobs after the complaints were found to be groundless.

* Five teachers are working at administration headquarters pending an investigation, while one paraprofessional has a case pending.

* Five other teachers could receive short suspensions.

* Two teachers face dismissal.

* One teacher retired.

* A custodian was found guilty in court of sexual abuse and faces dismissal.

* Nine substitute teachers were dismissed as a result of complaints.

Neilson conceded an investigation once took up to a year. But he said it now takes two to three weeks.

Earlier this year, the School Department held workshops for all employees on child abuse. The department also holds workshops for new teachers on how to manage a class.

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