DECLO • Fourth-graders who failed to achieve reading goals had their faces scribbled on with permanent marker by other students last week at Declo Elementary School — under the supervision of their teacher.
Some parents and Cassia County School District leadership are now decrying the consequences for the nine students, some of whom have learning problems.
When Cindy Hurst’s 10-year-old son arrived home from school Nov. 5, his entire face, hairline to chin, was scribbled on in red marker — including his eyelids. He also had green, red and purple scribble marks over the red, and his face was scratched by a marker that had a rough edge.
“He was humiliated, he hung his head and wanted to go wash his face,” said Hurst. “He knows he’s a slow reader. Now he thinks he should be punished for it.”
Hurst said her son is a quiet, tender-hearted boy who is always “extremely worried about pleasing his teacher.”
“I want to see positive changes made at the school and I’m not after anyone’s job,” she said.
Teacher Summer Larsen, who has taught at the school for six years, did not respond to a request by the Times-News for an interview.
But District Superintendent Gaylen Smyer confirmed what took place in her classroom, though he declined to name Larsen.
The 21 students in the class have Accelerated Reading goals where they read a set number of books in a given time frame, Smyer said.
Larsen allowed the students to choose their own incentive to meet the reading goal. The class chose to have students who did not meet the goal either stay inside at recess until the goal was met, or have their faces written on by their classmates who met their goals.
Nine of the students in the class did not meet their goals. Of those, six chose to have their faces marked on and three chose to forgo recess.
“Although all the students in the class agreed to the incentive, once it occurred it was not so well received. Nor should it have been,” Smyer said.
Administrators believe the students’ incentives may have been inspired by a recent PTO activity at which Declo Elementary Principal Rebecca Hunsaker allowed staff to paint her face and students to paint her hair, Smyer said.
Hunsaker did not respond to phone calls from the Times-News Thursday.
“What occurred with a principal is not the same when it occurs with a child,” Smyer said. “This is a serious concern.”
Parents’ Opinions Split
Not every parent agrees with Smyer. Karla Christensen’s daughter, who made her reading goal, is in Larsen’s fourth-grade class.
Christensen sometimes helps out in Larsen’s classroom and she said Larsen puts in extra effort — playing classical music and wearing a microphone so she doesn’t have to raise her voice to the children.
“I don’t feel like this was bullying. Bullying has a malicious intent. This was someone trying to get them motivated,” Christensen said. “I think it upset the parents more than the students.”
Christensen said if her daughter had come home with similar marks, she would have felt it was a reflection on her own parenting for not making sure her daughter reached her goal.
“I think (Larsen)is just a very creative teacher who was trying to do something to motivate the students and it went astray,” Christensen said.
LeRoy Robinson, a grandfather of two of the marked-up students, said Larsen made a “poor choice and basically, it was bullying.”
“I think children should feel safe at school and know the adults there will protect them,” he said.
Robinson said the children had their faces marked on in the morning. They had to leave it on all day, but were told to wash it off before they went home.
“It was a humiliation because they had to wear it all day and other kids were asking them about it and laughing at them,” he said.
The marker was hard to wash off, LeRoy’s wife, Karla, said. Both their grandchildren suffer from self-esteem issues and one child has learning problems, she said.
“Most of these kids were totally embarrassed and wanted to hide it from their parents, but the marker didn’t wash off,” Karla Robinson said.
Children who rode a bus home with junior high and high school students then suffered further humiliation, she said.
As a reward a child should never be allowed to belittle, make fun of or hurt someone else, she said.
Smyer said he could not confirm if the teacher faced disciplinary action, but parents reported she was absent from the classroom Nov. 7-9 and back in the classroom on Nov. 12.
Smyer said the district received some complaints from parents, while others were supportive.
Although teachers are allowed some latitude in class, he said, this incident comes down to an issue of safety in the classroom and school environment.
“There are things there that we questioned,” Smyer said.
Hurst said she has since removed her child from the situation.
“I am really saddened that the teacher didn’t use better judgment, as well as the principal when she learned about it,” Hurst said. “They marked the children as being less.”