All About Corporal Punishment

Q: After I broke up a fight at school, I got a letter in my file warning me that using excessive force could be considered corporal punishment. Can I be accused of corporal punishment for what I did?

A: It's possible, but it's more complicated than that.

A charge of corporal punishment is very serious. If proven, it can lead to a letter in the file, U-rating, dismissal procedures, the loss of your license and even criminal charges. But allegations of corporal punishment have to be substantiated before any such actions can be taken against a member. An updated Chancellor's Regulation A-420 dated Dec. 8, 1997, spells out the steps that must be taken to corroborate allegations of corporal punishment.

By knowing your rights, you may be able to avoid some pitfalls that could lead to accusations of corporal punishment and you can protect yourself in case you are charged.

In this column, we'll look at what corporal punishment means in legal terms. In the next column, we'll tell you what to do if you are accused of corporal punishment.

The board defines corporal punishment as the use of excessive physical force or abusive language as a punishment. It is forbidden by the by-laws of the New York City Board of Education.

The chancellor's regulation defines the term fully and also spells out the four conditions under which reasonable physical intervention may be necessary and would not constitute corporal punishment:

1. to protect yourself or others from injury;

2. to protect another pupil or teacher or any other person from physical injury;

3. to protect the property of the school or of others; or

4. to restrain or remove a pupil whose behavior is disorderly and who has refused to comply with requests to stop that behavior.

In applying the regulation, it is often necessary to make a distinction between appropriate action and corporal punishment. Except in extreme cases, that leaves room for interpretation and judgment. Breaking up fights, for example, falls into a gray area between the extremes. That is why the UFT negotiated changes in the new regulation that minimize subjectivity in the investigation.

The new regulation calls upon the board's Office of Special Investigations to conduct the investigation itself or designate an administrator to investigate under its guidance. That should ensure a fairer review of the evidence.

Most educators are inclined to step in when they see youngsters fighting, and teachers clearly have a responsibility to try to keep their students safe. However, teachers, who may not be trained to handle such situations, may use more force than some people would consider necessary. As a result, teachers have sometimes faced charges of corporal punishment when they broke up fights with what was considered excessive force.

(Members also risk injuring themselves when they step in to break up fights, which is why the union suggests that you avoid physical intervention, if at all possible, and, first, try to stop a fight with loud verbal admonitions to the students and, second, use your intercom or send monitors to get the help of a security officer, dean or administrator. However, if common sense tells you that you must intervene physically because of the circumstances, try to do so in a way that minimizes injury to yourself and others.)

Breaking up fights is just one example of a situation that could put a member at risk of allegations of corporal punishment. In the next column, we'll look at what you should do and how to preserve your rights if you are accused of corporal punishment in this or other circumstances.