A 54-second video capturing alleged corporal punishment at the Yvonne Bowsky Elementary School resulted in the vice principal being placed on temporary suspension as V.I. Department of Education officials rearrange the school’s administration (See related links below).
The video and DOE’s reaction were revealed during a Senate Rules and Judiciary confirmation hearing of V.I. Department of Education acting Commissioner Sharon Ann McCullum Thursday on St. Thomas.
Answering questions from Sen. Nereida “Nellie” Rivera-O’Reilly, McCullum admitted the existence of the Bowsky video as well as the suspension of the school’s vice principal.
After suspending Bowksy’s vice principal for a week with pay, DOE officials returned her to the school as principal and assigned a new vice principal with the mandate to no longer allow corporal punishment, McCullum told the committee.
“During her confirmation hearing, McCullum admitted that she saw the video and suspended the vice principal for one week with pay,” Rivera-O’Reilly said. “After her hearing, the vice principal was returned to work with the order to cease and desist administering corporal punishment in the school.”
McCullum also told the committee that she is in support of legislation to ban corporal punishment in the territory.
“She [McCullum] said on the record that she is committed to discontinuing the practice of corporal punishment in schools across the territory,” Rivera-O’Reilly said. “She also said that schools don’t keep any documentation of corporal punishment, which is just terrible.”
After watching the video shot at Bowksy, which was published on YouTube Friday morning, Rivera-O’Reilly was sickened, she said.
“The video made me sick,” the senator said. “I just can’t wrap my head around it. I can’t understand why adults would try to say that violence in schools is a good thing. It doesn’t seem like it’s worked so far.”
Corporal punishment is legal in the Virgin Islands under V.I. Code, Title 17, Chapter 9, Section 87, which states, "All principals and teachers in the public schools in the Virgin Islands shall have the right to exercise the same authority, as to conduct and behavior, over pupils attending their schools during the time they are in attendance, including the time required in going to and from their homes, as parents, guardians, or persons in parental relation to such pupils."
The Virgin Islands Board of Education’s Student Discipline Policy cites that law with the addendum that “The ramifications of this procedure must be carefully analyzed before this procedure is utilized.”
Corporal punishment, while not unique to Bowksy, also is not a regular occurrence at all schools in the territory. While concrete numbers are impossible to attain since schools are not required to report instances of corporal punishment, The Source has learned that the majority of victims are special needs boys.
The students in the Bowksy video are allegedly special needs male students.
Rivera-O’Reilly pledged to introduce legislation to ban corporal punishment in the territory’s public schools. Her bill will not be the first time in recent years the V.I. Legislature tackles corporal punishment.
A similar bill was introduced by former Sen. Judi Buckley in October 2013. Despite testimony from educators including University of the Virgin Islands President Dr. David Hall, V.I. Board of Education officials, corporal punishment victims and an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, who all supported the legislation, the bill proved to be divisive and was killed in committee after being vetted on three occasions.
“The American Civil Liberties Union flew down their senior legal counsel who was an advocate for banning corporal punishment federally,” Buckley said. “Her testimony was so powerful; she provided tons of data and tons of research on how corporal punishment actually has the reverse effect. Counselors and educators testified also, and they all painted a very clear picture of the damaging effects of corporal punishment.”
With the Bowksy video and the acting commissioner of DOE’s support, Rivera-O’Reilly said she believes a corporal punishment ban in the territory could pass this time around.
“I am introducing legislation to ban corporal punishment and I think it will pass,” the senator said. “A lot of the concern before was that people didn’t think it was happening. Obviously it was happening but people chose to ignore it or to tolerate it because they thought it wasn’t happening in a violent way. The Bowsky video shows that is not the case.”
“I think this video is very telling,” Rivera-O’Reilly said. “If we see this video, I can’t imagine people not being upset and wanting to change the law. I am hoping some of our new legislators, like the former police commissioner, know that violence begets violence and that you don’t modify behavior with beatings. I think with some of our new senators we can neutralize those who are stuck on maintaining the status quo and move legislation forward.”
If Rivera-O’Reilly’s bill passes, the Virgin Islands would join 31 states other states, the District of Colombia and Puerto Rico, who have also banned corporal punishment. A total of 19 states still allow it: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming.
The fact that the practice is legal in other areas should not make any difference in the Virgin Islands, Rivera-O’Reilly said.
“I don’t buy the argument that it is legal someplace else so it should be legal here,” she said. “That has nothing to do with the Virgin Islands and many of the states where it is legal do not actually allow it.”
Even if legislation to ban corporal punishment doesn’t pass, Rivera-O’Reilly said she hopes the Bowksy video will alarm the community about the reality in some of the territory’s public schools.
“Even if it’s not successful, that video should alarm parents and alarm the territory and alarm the nation,” the senator said.