Little Janitors

Portland Public Schools defends student discipline one official compares to an inmate work crew.

Domingo Martin spent three days in November and December at North Portland’s César Chávez K-8 School cleaning the gym and collecting trash in the school’s foul-smelling restrooms.

It wasn't his job—it was punishment. School officials say Domingo argued with another boy and threw a piece of kiwi fruit in the cafeteria. He was sentenced to this janitorial duty while other kids played at recess.

Domingo, a second-grader, is 7.

Parents at César Chávez say they only recently discovered many students have been forced to pick up trash on school grounds; scrub floors, walls and desks; and clean doorknobs. 

The kids' offenses have included goofing off in class, rolling their eyes at a teacher, and playing four square too aggressively.

Domingo was so humiliated he didn't tell his mother what the school was making him do. 

"I was sad and angry," says Domingo's mother, Juana Diego. "It's not right to punish kids in this way."

César Chávez Principal Lavert Robertson defends the punishment, calling it "community service." 

Experts on school discipline—including an assistant superintendent for the Portland Public Schools—call it completely inappropriate.

"If they throw food, they should clean it up," says Alicia Roberts Frank, an assistant professor of teacher education at Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling. "Cleaning beyond that, or for a behavior that is completely unrelated, like eye-rolling, is illogical."

Five mothers have approached WW with stories of what their children told them after César Chávez imposed cleaning duties on them during recess and lunchtime.

All of the mothers, speaking in Spanish, say they learned about the punishments after the fact, even though some of them say they learned about their children's misbehavior immediately from school officials. PPS's more established system of suspending or expelling students requires parental notification.

PPS Superintendent Carole Smith has put increasing pressure on schools to lower their discipline rates and end disparities in punishment between white and minority students. Principals now face performance evaluations that demand reductions in the number of students suspended or expelled from school.

But principals are largely on their own to determine how to fulfill Smith's mandate. That's in keeping with Smith's general approach of giving principals large discretion over their schools' operations.

A spokeswoman for PPS, Christine Miles, and a representative of the district's equity office in charge of school discipline, Rick Kirschmann, defended the program on behalf of Smith.

Asked why kids should clean their school as punishment for disruptive or disrespectful behavior, Kirschmann responded with a question: "Why do we see inmates picking up trash on the side of the freeway as the result of the crimes that they've done, which have nothing to do with littering?"

The parents' stories suggest César Chávez—where 57 percent of students are Latino—has embarked on a discipline strategy that goes way beyond anything in the district's Student Responsibilities, Rights and Discipline Handbook. 

The handbook recommends timeouts and after-school detention as consequences for minor misbehavior; nowhere does it outline janitorial work as an acceptable form of punishment.

Miles and Kirschmann say the cleaning falls under "restitution," which is allowed under PPS discipline policy.

But restitution has been defined in the discipline handbook as a response only to misbehavior that results in "damage, destruction or loss of property." It required students and parents to pay to repair the damage—not clean schools.

César Chávez's three-page discipline plan—which it is required to keep on file at district headquarters—lists "restitution" as an option but doesn't define the term. The plan lists "school community service" as an option and defines that as either "behind-the-scenes lunch job" or "help custodian." (Principals aren't required to get PPS approval for their plans.)

César Chávez's alternative approach to discipline risks ruining kids' relationship with school, says Marta Guembes, a longtime education activist in Portland.

"They should be happy going to school, not frightened," Guembes says. "I'm appalled."

Lavert Robertson took over as principal at César Chávez school in 2012, one year after the district named the K-8 a "beacon" school for its work to combat racial biases that undermine student achievement.

PPS statistics show César Chávez under Robertson's leadership has dramatically reduced its rate of suspensions and expulsions. Three years ago, 12.6 percent of its students received such discipline, one of the highest rates in the district. Last year, only 4.1 percent of students were expelled or suspended. 

The so-called "community service" program was launched this fall, for the 2014-15 school year, parents say.

Robertson defends the practice."I'm very confident with what we'e doing at César Chávez," he tells WW. He calls the newspaper's questions about the practice "misguided."

Angel Humphrey is a former full-time physical education teacher at César Chávez who runs the community service program. She also defended community service, saying parents who criticized the program had never seen it in action. 

"I'm the only person who's ever seen it firsthand," she says.

Except for the children.

Laura Sosa Ortega's son Fernando is a 9-year-old fourth-grader at César Chávez. He was made to pick up paper off restroom floors, clean Humphrey's office, and scrub desks for one week. His actions that led to the punishment? He says he got in trouble for forming an alliance with other skilled four-square players so they could win. 

"You're not supposed to team up," Fernando explains, "because it's a game for everybody to play, not just people who are good."

It's harder for him to explain how cleaning the school helped repair relationships with students whose feelings he may have hurt on the four-square court.

"I had to clean other people's garbage instead of other people cleaning it themselves," he says.

Adds Fernando's mother, "What he did wasn't severe enough for them to do this."

Mark Freimark, who spent 25 years as a PPS custodian, called César Chávez's program "totally out of bounds."

Freimark says having students clean up messes they've made or repair damage they've done—cleaning walls they've written on, for example—makes sense. But forced work for other infractions sends the wrong message.

"That means cleanup is a punishment," Freimark says, "and cleanup isn't a punishment."

César Chávez's custodian declined through a union representative to comment for this story.

School officials told parents that children are kept out of view of other students when they're cleaning. But parents tell WW that's not the case. They say the punishments are humiliating for students, who have had to perform tasks in front of other kids. 

Cecilia Ortega Martinez says her 6-year-old daughter burst into tears after finding her 9-year-old brother picking up trash at school. He'd been accused of making crude gestures with a banana. (The boy says he was laughing at others, not making the gestures himself.)

Ortega Martinez says the punishment only served to shame her son and make him feel unsettled in school. "He doesn't want to go," she says. "He's afraid."

It's not clear what precautions the school is taking to keep kids safe from health hazards such as germ-infested restroom surfaces and industrial cleaning products. 

Miles, the district spokeswoman, says children are supervised and given gloves and only soapy water as a cleaner. She also says parents are informed of punishments through phone calls or letters.

Viridiana Aguilar says her son told her school officials gave him a cleaner that smelled like chemicals, even though he has asthma. He had been suspended for hitting two girls and was ordered to pick up trash in restrooms and clean Humphrey's office even after he returned to the school, she says.

Catarina Sebastían's daughter, 8-year-old Patricia, covers her face and looks down at the ground when she describes how Humphrey made her wipe down doorknobs with a spray-on cleanser one day during recess. 

Her infraction? The second-grader rolled her eyes at a teacher who had asked her to move away from another girl, she says.  

"She's still so little," her mother says. "Discipline the kids, but not this strongly."

Roberts Frank, the Lewis & Clark professor, says inappropriate punishment could backfire. "The idea is to foster empathy and mutual understanding rather than resentment and revenge-seeking behavior," she says.

Aside from defending the program, Principal Robertson did not respond to an emailed request for an interview. 

At least one administrator for the district, however, has said the César Chávez principal and current assistant superintendent for the district, tells  program is wrong. 

Antonio Lopez, a former César Chávez principal and current assistant superintendent for the district, tells WW that the school's community service program is not OK. Lopez says he was contacted by a concerned César Chávez parent last week and that he has told Robertson, the school's principal, to end the program.

"If it is happening, then it needs to stop," he says. "Consequences like that are not appropriate."

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