'Planking' as punishment is in line with district policies, San Diego Unified says in response to complaint

An elementary school’s use of “planking” and other physical exercise to curb misbehavior among students is justified and within discipline policies, according to San Diego Unified’s official response to a formal complaint.

Horton Elementary School has come under fire for disciplining students by forcing them to hold a plank position on a reportedly hot blacktop surface, which the ACLU said amounts to corporal punishment. School leaders were criticized further when parents were banned from campus for 14 days under threat of prosecution after they complained to the principal.

The incident occurred on Oct. 14, when a disturbance broke out in the cafeteria after a student reportedly took a bathroom pass from an employee’s pocket. In response, the school replaced three days of open recess for fourth- and fifth-graders with structured exercising, including the plank or push-up position.

According to a Dec. 20 response to a complaint filed by education activist Sally Smith, students had begun “laughing, screaming and pounding on the lunch tables.” The situation was described as “a ‘riot,’ ‘chaos,’ and a ‘mob mentality and dangerous situation,’ ” according to the response written by Lynn A. Ryan, San Diego Unified’s uniform complaint officer.

“In order to promote team-building and improve student behavior, the principal instituted a structured lunch recess on Oct. 17, 18, and 19.… Students participated in physical calisthenic activities of walking, jumping jacks and holding the push-up position (a variation of planks),” Ryan wrote.

The district said Horton did not engage in corporal punishment, and Ryan’s office said no corrective action was needed. However, San Diego Unified acknowledged that Horton’s online student handbook was outdated and available only in English at the time of the incident. It is now available for translation in 95 languages.

San Diego Unified said that it could not confirm a claim that a student suffered a blistered hand from planking on a hot blacktop. “There was uncertainty as to the cause of the blister.... It could have been a result of playing on the monkey bars,” according to the district’s response.

However, as a precaution, students were not required to plank on the third day of required exercises. Ryan said that two students with casts on their arms were excused from the activity, and that no other students asked to sit out the calisthenics.

The student exercises were overseen by four teachers, the school nurse, and four lunch supervisors, Ryan said. The principal, who was more than eight months pregnant, led and participated in the activities with students, she said.

The district could not confirm reports that students were threatened with juvenile hall if they did not participate in the exercises.

Principal Staci Dent told the district that her conversation with students “centered on leadership, good behavior and self-discipline,” Ryan said. Dent also spoke to students about the consequences of bad behavior and its potential for “future problems with the law.”

The ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties has criticized San Diego Unified and called for an apology and staff training in a letter sent to Supt. Cindy Marten.

 

maureen.magee@sduniontribune.com

Magee writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune

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