Alana Cole-Faber and Xander Faber complained to school officials about alleged corporal punishment at Dora Kennedy French Immersion School, a Blue Ribbon school in Greenbelt, Md. (Donna St. George/The Washington Post)
Xander Faber and his wife, Alana, were stunned the day their 5-year-old daughter told them that her twin brother had been spanked in front of their kindergarten class. According to the children, the boy had jumped around while singing with the class, and his teacher struck him until he cried.
The Maryland couple reported the incident to administrators and thought their concerns were taken seriously. But a year later, saying they are frustrated by inaction, they have gone public about alleged corporal punishment in a National Blue Ribbon school in Prince George’s County. They say they hope to spur change that will help other parents.
Three other families at Dora Kennedy French Immersion School in Greenbelt also have told The Washington Post that their children witnessed a child being struck — and in one case, their child reported being struck in class. Most of the allegations involve one teacher, who has since left the county and has been hired in neighboring Montgomery.
The parents say the episode has raised questions about the mechanisms for reporting such problems and about school leaders’ responsibilities to act on such reports.
Though corporal punishment is not a common complaint in the Washington region, more than 166,000 students were disciplined using physical force in 2011-2012, according to the most recent federal data. The practice has been on the decline, experts say, but 19 states still allow it, and it is most frequent in the South. Maryland, Virginia and the District are among jurisdictions where it has been banned.
In places where it is used, corporal punishment disproportionately affects students of color, said Kaitlin Banner, a staff attorney at the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization active on school-discipline issues. Research shows it’s ineffective, she said, causing pain and humiliation rather than getting to the root of student behavior.
“It’s state-sponsored violence against students,” she said.
Prince George’s County officials said the allegations at Dora Kennedy are under investigation and they cannot discuss the teacher’s departure from the school system because it is a personnel matter. They also said two other staff members were retrained to ensure they understood proper procedures. The Post is not identifying the teacher by name because she has not been charged with a crime.
The teacher said in an interview Sunday that she had never spanked a child at school and that the allegations are false.
“It is totally wrong what they are doing,” she said. “It is just hurtful not only to the teaching community but to the children and a very, very beautiful program.”
“I am hurting for my innocent children,” she said. “I am hurting for a prestigious program. I am sincerely hurting for teachers who take their time to prepare, to plan, to translate the English language curriculum into the French language.”
Though the teacher has left the school system, Prince George’s officials sent a letter home to Dora Kennedy parents in late October saying that a “full investigation” into the alleged incidents was underway and that an acting principal would be filling the school’s top job.
The school’s principal, Nasser Abi, is on administrative leave and said he could not discuss the issue. “The county is doing the investigation, and we have to wait for the outcome,” he said.
In Montgomery County, school officials said the teacher is working as a long-term substitute but declined to provide detailed comments about her personnel record, saying such matters are confidential. They said no one has complained, and the teacher is well liked by students and parents.
The Fabers said they started last school year at Dora Kennedy — then called Robert Goddard French Immersion School — with high hopes, grateful their twins had won slots through a lottery. All went well, they said, until the October day their daughter described the teacher’s spanking of their son.
The Fabers met with an administrator, conferred with the principal by phone and filed a written report naming three other children whom their twins identified as having been hit, they said. They asked that their twins be reassigned to other classrooms; they said they felt at the time that the situation was being handled.
In late May, they say, they realized the teacher they’d complained about was still teaching and had supervised their daughter’s classroom one day, allegedly telling children she would “beat” their butts if they did not listen, according to their daughter.
Around the same time, they said, they learned other parents had concerns, too.
Lilie and Kirt Fulcher said that one day in June, as Lilie Fulcher visited the school, she sat with one of her twin daughters at a lunch table. The 6-year-old leaned over and whispered, “Do you know the teacher spanks kids?”
Troubled, the Fulchers met with the principal. Their daughter had not been hit, they said, but she told her parents she had seen the teacher spank four other children for not completing work or misbehaving.
State education officials say that violations of the ban on corporal punishment are typically considered a personnel issue within local school systems or a law enforcement matter, depending on the circumstances.
The Fulchers say the episode left their daughter frightened and panicky, thinking she might be hit next. The last week of school, “our daughter was terrified to go into that classroom,” Lilie Fulcher said. They said they were dissatisfied with their meeting with the school’s principal and got in touch with the district’s security staff. The teacher was not present for the last several days of school, they said.
They wrote to school system administrators and elected officials with concerns about the case and district procedures. They say they believe Child Protective Services should have been called right away.
In September, the Fabers — who also have contacted district and elected officials about the case — transferred their children out of Dora Kennedy to a neighborhood public school. But they say they care about the school system and decided to push for systemic change.
Alana Cole-Faber has written a blog item detailing the family’s experience,and Xander Faber spoke out at an Oct. 22 school board meeting, describing what he called an “appalling response” and saying district officials told the family the principal had “done nothing” with their complaint.
“There is no system of check and balances in place to ensure that abuse allegations are thoroughly and objectively investigated,” Xander Faber told the board.
Two other families, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their children’s privacy, also described experiences with physical punishment at the school. One mother said her child witnessed spankings by the same teacher that the Fabers and Fulchers reported.
The other family said a different teacher hit their first-grader earlier this school year, grabbing him and using a foot to push him. Separately, another educator pinched him hard enough that he cried after he was inattentive in a hallway, the family alleged.
“Where does this stop?” the parents asked in a letter they wrote Oct. 25 to the principal and several other administrators.