Senate committee approves bill to ban corporal punishment

Sen. Genevieve Whitaker during Friday’s Education and Workforce Development Committee hearing at the Frits Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room on St. Croix. Whitaker chairs the committee.

The Senate’s Committee on Education and Workforce Development has moved forward a bill banning corporal punishment in the territory’s schools, after hearing testimony about the practice’s effects on individuals and communities.

“Violence against our children is a legacy of slavery whereby enslaved Africans were not only beaten into submission but were made to perform these ‘whuppings’ or violent acts on each other in the presence of the slave owners,” said psychotherapist Nisha de Jean Charles, owner of Buoyant Living Psychotherapy on St. Thomas and St. John, who testified on the legislation during a committee hearing Friday.

There is no evidence “that ritualistic forms of physical discipline of children existed prior to the Atlantic slave trade. Instead, the opposite is true. West African societies held children in a much higher regard than slave societies, a notable difference in how black bodies in the West are treated to this day,” Charles said. “Yet, this practice of inflicting bodily harm on our children to achieve obedience persists — despite the abundance of research that indicates this method of discipline is both ineffective in the long term and consequential in the interim.”

“As a Virgin Islander, someone who was corporally punished, we almost look at corporal punishment in sort of a nostalgic sort of way. We get together with our friends and reflect on those days when we were punished,” said Sen. Milton Potter. “It’s like war stories that you’re sharing, but it is clear that all of the experts in the field — all of the experts, the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics — all of them, people who study this, study human behavior, consistently come down against corporal punishment.”

The Virgin Islands is one of the few states or territories that still legally condones corporal punishment in schools, and Charles said the others are primarily in majority black communities in the southern United States.

While administrators claim there have been no recent instances of teachers hitting their students, Charles said there’s no way to know for sure.

Education employees self-report whether they are using physical punishment in the classroom, so “it is almost impossible to state with confidence, ‘We do not have a problem with corporal punishment on our school grounds,’” Charles said. “Because this process appears very elusive and subjective, to say the least, we may assume a count of zero truly reflects the reality of what is occurring in our schools. But sadly it does not, if only we consider the recent accusations regarding incidents of sexual assault.”

Alfredo Bruce Smith, 50, a track coach and hall monitor who’s been employed at Charlotte Amalie High School for 15 years, was charged Sept. 1 with child sex crimes.

Federal prosecutors say they have evidence that Smith sexually abused dozens of underage boys for at least 13 years, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court.

Corporal punishment and sexual abuse have similar psychological effects on children, and “breeds further abuse,” Charles said.

“We definitely have to move the pendulum in a different direction and really increase our emotional intelligence,” said bill sponsor Sen. Janelle Sarauw.

Corporal punishment has been used for generations “because that’s all we knew. All we knew was too pick up a whip and beat you, and expect that behaviors will change,” Sarauw said. “You can still discipline without corporal punishment.

Senators in the 33rd Legislature considered a similar ban last year, but it was removed through an amendment by Sen. Kenneth Gittens, who argued it should remain legal.

“There’s a strong central authority granted to educational institutions to oversee these children and act as their parents while those children are in their custody,” he said at the time. “This is the last tool that we have in place to address any disciplinary issues in the schools.”

Gittens was the only committee member absent from Friday’s hearing.

“When it was gutted from the legislation we went back and we spent a considerable amount of time” working on it and “it’s now a lengthy bill and outlines what corporal punishment is and is not,” Sarauw said.

The bill defines corporal punishment as “the intentional infliction of physical pain upon the body of a pupil as a disciplinary measure.”

Education Commissioner Racquel Berry-Benjamin testified that existing policy already forbids corporal punishment.

Current law, however, “authorizes all principals and teachers in the public schools to exercise the same authority, as to conduct and behavior, over pupils attending during the time pupils are in school, as parents, guardians, or persons in parental relation to such pupils. This statute has been construed to authorize the administering of corporal punishment,” according to the bill summary.

Sen. Kurt Vialet, who has been in education for 30 years, said he would support the measure as “the bill clarifies certain areas” that were in dispute when the ban was first proposed.

The proposed legislation still allows education employees to physically confront or restrain students who are attempting to inflict violence on themselves or others, and protects them from liability.

“An employee’s physical contact with the body of a pupil is not corporal punishment if it is reasonable and necessary under the circumstances and is not designed or intended to cause pain or if the employee uses reasonable force for the protection of the employee, the pupil or other pupils to obtain the possession of a weapon or other dangerous object within a pupil’s control, or for the protection of property,” according to the bill.

“I know we were all corporally punished. There’s a better way now. It takes some time, it takes some effort, it takes some work to administer an appropriate punishment or appropriate discipline, but corporal punishment breeds persons who think that one way to solve a problem is to physically inflict your will, your force against someone who is more vulnerable,” Potter said. “I think that it should be very clear, there shouldn’t be any vagueness or any doubt that corporal punishment in the territory is no longer acceptable.”

Sen. Carla Joseph said that like many of her generation, she was disciplined with corporal punishment as a child, “but not a lot from my teachers.”

Sen. Javan James asked whether outlawing corporal punishment in schools might enable families to “get rich” by filing lawsuits against the Education Department.

The department “gets sued from time to time” during the normal course of business, and the bill will have no bearing on whether a family chooses to bring a civil claim, “it’s their right to do that,” said Education Department legal counsel Alvincent Hutson. “What this bill does do, is it falls in line with what we’re seeing across the nation, and many other jurisdictions where they’re making clear declaration that corporal punishment, as we have defined it here, is not acceptable, is not permissible, and so that’s how they’ll move forward.”

Hutson said he was “shocked” the Board of Education was not present at the hearing “as they’re the oversight body for the Department of Education,” and setting policy. “In short, there is not going to be any type of seismic shift when it comes to lawsuits. That won’t change, but it does make it very clear what is permissible and what is not.”

All of the senators present during Friday’s hearing voted in favor of forwarding the bill to the Committee on Rules and the Judiciary, including Joseph, Potter, Sarauw, Vialet, chairwoman Genevieve Whitaker and Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory. Gittens was absent.

- Contact Suzanne Carlson at 340-714-9122 or email scarlson@dailynews.vi.