School’s Punishments for Kids Upsets Parents

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Parents of students in Portland, Oregon, are upset about “community service” discipline, which has kids doing clean-up chores. Photo by Michael H/Photodisc/Getty Images.

An elementary school in Portland, Oregon, has put a controversial approach to discipline on hold after parents complained that it caused their kids to feel “humiliated.”

The “community service” program, called off at the César Chávez K through 8 school while the Portland Public Schools district investigates, reportedly punished misbehaving kids for unruliness (such as throwing food) by having them do chores that included picking up trash from hallways and paper towels from bathroom floors. But that didn’t sit well with some parents.

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“My son has been humiliated and he’s frightened to go to school, and he feels sorry and has some esteem issues. I just don’t think that’s right,” Jeff Hagadorn, the father of a first grader, told KPTV. He noted, “I feel like if a student gets in trouble I’m fine with him having detention or having extra school work.”

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However, Christine Miles, a spokesperson for Portland Public Schools, tells Yahoo Parenting that the aim is to offer consequences that are alternatives to punishments including suspensions, expulsions, and extra homework assignments because research has shown those options are ineffective and  have negative consequences. She also stresses that while the district widely uses community-service discipline, the methods in question have been temporarily put on hold at César Chávez in order to ensure it’s being used appropriately.

“We’re trying to see if the chores match the discipline,” Miles explains. “If they make a mess, they have to clean it up. If they hurt someone, they have to apologize. If they are involved in a food fight, then part of the discipline is to correct their behavior by them cleaning it up — but if they’re being instructed to instead be cleaning up the restrooms, that’s not okay.”

Jeremy Finn, and education professor and discipline expert at the University of Buffalo Graduate School of Education, tells Yahoo Parenting that, while he’s not familiar with the specific program in Portland, it sounds like it has the potential to be effective. “Community service is a method of discipline used by the courts all the time, and it always seemed like a good one to me,” he says. “It gives students the chance to make up for what they did while keeping them in school — and anything that gets them back in school is good.”

Some of the confusion about what’s being carried out at the school in question, Miles adds, may stem from the fact that several schools in the Portland district have been participating in trainings for “restorative justice” discipline. It’s an approach gaining a foothold at schools nationally, and aims to foster more open, meaningful relationships among students and teachers as an alternative to “zero tolerance” policies such as suspension and expulsion. While the César Chávez school is not one of the six in the district that has been using the method, Miles notes, an administrator from the school has attended the training program; part of the investigation will be to examine whether the school has been putting it into action prematurely or inappropriately.

And while the superintendent has not made a public statement on the situation, local paper Willamette Week interviewed candidates for the upcoming school board election on the issue, and most agreed that doling out chores that matched the misbehavior was appropriate — especially if it meant providing an alternative to excluding kids from school. But they agreed on another point, too, as articulated by candidate Bobbie Regan: “It should never be a shaming activity.”

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