Physically striking students as punishment will be banned in V.I. public schools – student truancy will lead to more intervention and higher fines – if two bills approved in committee Monday are signed into law.
The bill banning corporal punishment, sponsored by Sen. Judi Buckley, [Bill 30-0136] was heard in committee in April of 2013 and in February of this year, with some senators concerned that not letting teachers strike students would encourage bad behavior. (See Related Links below)
In prior hearings, numerous experts in the field testified that corporal punishment was ultimately counterproductive, leading to more violent behavior among the very students it is meant to help. Education officials testified it is almost never used and is problematic; they did not object to a ban.
They did, however, raise some concerns about details of the bill, particularly a section that deleted one of two existing provisions of law giving school officials the authority and responsibility of guardians of students while they are in school. This authority is called "in loco parentis," a Latin phrase meaning in the place of a parent.
Buckley introduced an amendment changing that.
"A valid concern was raised that it would delete in loco parentis, so that there would be a question about whether they could act in a medical or other situation if they cannot get hold of the parents," Buckley said, before offering an amendment that left the original law authorizing in loco parentis in place.
Voting to approve the bill and send it on to the Rules and Judiciary Committee for its next hearing were Buckley and Sens. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly and Sammuel Sanes. Voting no were Sens. Tregenza Roach and Janette Millin Young. Sens. Donald Cole and Myron Jackson abstained.
The truancy bill, [30-0459] also sponsored by Buckley, would set in place mandatory processes for truant students and increase fines. After two unexcused absences in a month, the school would have to hold a parent conference. After four unexcused absences in a month, the parent and school are to enter into a written agreement that establishes school attendance requirements and other actions.
If a student has seven unexcused absences in a month or 10 in a year, the district superintendent would be able to file a truancy complaint with the court, as the law currently allows.
St. Thomas/St. John Superintendent of Schools Jeannette Smith-Barry recommended this section be changed so that principals were the ones to report it, because principals are the ones there on the ground, seeing the school’s attendance reports and interacting with teachers. Buckley said there would be amendments to change that provision and to address other concerns.
While it allows punitive action, the bill says none can be taken "unless available supportive services and other school resources have been provided to the student."
Once all measures have been exhausted and there have been 10 unexcused absences in a year, or seven in a month, the court may suspend the truant’s driver’s license for up to a year and/or restrict or prohibit the student from work or extracurricular activities. The court can also fine the truant $100 to $300 – up from the current fine, which was set in 1959. The court may also impose community service or, in the most extreme case, "detain the truant" for up to 20 days.
Smith-Barry and V.I. Board of Education Chair Oswin Sewer both objected to the possible detention of students. Smith-Barry said that she did support suspension of license and most of the other provisions of the bill, however.
Buckley responded that punitive measures are very unlikely and can only be imposed at the very end of a long process, when the student is clearly in very serious risk of dropping out.
Voting to send the bill on for further consideration were Buckley, Jackson, Rivera-O’Reilly and Sanes. Voting no were Cole, Roach and Millin Young.