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Connecticut Teacher Anne O'Donnell Charged After Forcing Child to Eat Garbage: How Far Can Teachers Go With Classroom Discipline?

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By Admin on March 18, 2009 4:55 PM

A Connecticut kindergarten teacher has been arrested after she allegedly gave an unusual "lesson" to a student. Last Thursday, 67-year-old Anne O'Donnell, a teacher at Park City Magnet School, supposedly made a 5-year-old student eat some food he threw away in a garbage can. She was arrested on Tuesday and now faces a charge of risk of injury to a minor.

The AP reported on officials' description of the incident as follows:

"...the charge stems from an incident last week when the boy apparently tossed out his lunch of chicken nuggets and a banana from the school cafeteria.

The teacher is accused of retrieving the items from the garbage can and forcing the boy to eat them in front of her."

However, a local news story paints a far less dramatic or drastic portrait of the story. Superintendent of Schools, John Ramos, told the Connecticut Post O'Donnell explained her side that "she was concerned the student had not eaten his lunch and asked that he eat the banana" (hopefully, it was peeled after-the-fact). Ramos noted that the state's Department of Child and Family Services was "informed of the incident, but its officials did not pursue the case," possibly because the allegations did not meet the "statutory definition of abuse or neglect".

To be fair to O'Donnell, keeping order and discipline in a classroom, particularly one filled with very young children, can sometimes be a challenging endeavor for teachers. Certainly detention, suspension and expulsion are commonly heard-of and legal forms of school discipline, but what about discipline in the classroom? Actually, parents might be surprised to know that states and localities vary widely in the extent of discipline and/or punishment allowed in a classroom.

Often, the issue comes up in the context of corporal punishment. Some parents might be under the impression that corporal punishment (i.e. spanking, paddling, etc.) is illegal. That might be the case, but in actuality, corporal punishment remains legal in over 20 states. Last year, CNN noted that according to a government report, corporal punishment is used "frequently" in 13 of those states: Missouri, Kentucky, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Florida. However, even in states where it is legal, it is often up to individual school districts to determine whether corporal punishment is permitted. Some school districts allow parents to sign a waiver form and opt out of corporal punishment, too.

At the federal level, the Supreme Court addressed corporal punishment in schools in its 1977 ruling in Ingraham v. Wright that the Eighth Amendment's cruel and unusual punishments clause does not apply to disciplinary corporal punishment in public schools. Moreover, in the same case, the court said that Constitution's Due Process Clause does not require notice and a hearing before the imposition of such punishment. Last year, the Supreme Court turned down a case of a San Antonio teen paddled for the infraction of leaving campus to go get breakfast. At this time, discipline in school, corporal or otherwise, remains a matter for states and local school districts to deal with.