June 17, 2008

Teacher Apologizes After Complaints

By Kris Sherman, The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash.

Jun. 17--A veteran teacher formally apologized to her third-graders Monday for asking students what school officials called "inappropriate" questions during a class game, and for giving students birthday spankings with a flyswatter.

Doria Hathorn has been on paid leave from her Browns Point Elementary School classroom since April 7 while school district officials investigated complaints by some parents about her actions in class.

She is scheduled to return to Browns Point in the fall, said Tacoma School District spokeswoman Leanna Albrecht. Hathorn, who's been with the district since 1992, was suspended for three days without pay and will be coached on "best teaching practices" next school year, Albrecht said.

The district paid $25,111 in salary and benefits during the investigation, Albrecht said. The leave cost another $4,855 in substitute pay.

Hathorn has never been disciplined or investigated before, the spokeswoman added.

The apology is an unusual conclusion to allegations that divided the school community over whether Hathorn's teaching style was fun and harmless or over the line.

Some parents said Hathorn embarrassed students by asking them who they thought was the "hottest" boy or girl in the class during a game patterned on television's "Wheel of Fortune."

Other parents describe Hathorn as a dedicated, caring teacher who makes learning fun and builds self-reliance and self-esteem in her students.

Hathorn did not return calls The News Tribune made to her home Sunday and Monday.

Her apology was to "bring closure to the school year" and the investigation, according to the letter sent home Friday from Browns Point Principal Patricia Moncure Thomas and Don Lloyd, the Tacoma School District's director of elementary education.

An "extensive investigation" into complaints by some parents found that Hathorn asked some "inappropriate" questions during the classroom game and directed students to stand on chairs while they answered, the letter says. It doesn't spell out what kinds of questions were asked.

"In addition, the practice of spanking students with a flyswatter in celebration of their birthdays was not appropriate," the letter adds.

Lisa Dominguez and Melissa Moore say their third-graders are terrified of Hathorn. The two moms say they're angry she'll be allowed to return to Browns Point in the fall.

Three parents described these incidents and said they occurred routinely:

--The playing of the "Wheel of Fortune" word game. When a student wanted to "buy a vowel," he or she would be directed to stand on a chair and answer questions such as "Who's the hottest (or cutest) boy or girl in the class?" Moore and Dominguez said.

--Birthday "spankings" with a flyswatter. "She'd bring them up to the front of the room and say, 'Bend over and grab your ankles.' She'd let them pick the paddle and then 'pretend' to spank them," Moore said. The children could pick either a flyswatter in the shape of a hand or one in the shape of a ladybug for the spanking, Dominguez said.

"From the beginning of the school year, my son said he didn't want to be present on his birthday" in May, Moore added. "He just kept complaining about this teacher, and I just thought it was typical children complaining about their teachers."

Moore learned later, she said, that other kids were upset and other parents had concerns.

The class counted the number of swats aloud as the child stood with his or her "fanny in the air," one parent wrote in a letter of complaint. The parent asked that his name not be published.

Moore and Dominguez said the game and the spankings humiliated their third-graders. Both said their children were traumatized by the experiences. Dominguez believes her daughter needs counseling.

"I honestly can't believe they're bringing her back," Moore said.

About a dozen parents of Hathorn's former students called The News Tribune in support.

Jeff Berard, whose son was in Hathorn's class last school year and whose daughter hopes to have Hathorn as her teacher in the future, was among them.

"She's just an incredible lady, and it's just a crying shame this is going on," he said. "Hands down, she's the best teacher in the school."

Several parents said they were familiar with the "Wheel of Fortune" game, but they never knew it to be humiliating in any way. The birthday "spankings," they said, were simply good-natured fun.

Julia Reece, who volunteered in Hathorn's classroom a few years ago, said she never saw "anything inappropriate or that would embarrass" a student.

Her daughter, who's now going into ninth grade, remembers "Homework Hathorn" as one of her favorite teachers, Reece said. Reece sees Hathorn as a mentor who challenges her students, makes them perform academically and rolls the learning experience up into a fun day.

Her daughter recalls "Wheel of Fortune" as "one of the funnest" things in Hathorn's class because kids got to stand on the table and dance and sing, Reece said.

Hathorn's style of teaching allows kids to take risks, to not always get the right answer and to build self-esteem in the process, said Becky Jones, who's had two daughters in the teacher's third grade.

"I feel very strongly that the story you're hearing is not true to her character," Jones told The News Tribune. She said she never saw or heard of "anything inappropriate, ever" in Hathorn's classroom. The "Wheel of Fortune" game was "fun, funny, fun," Jones said. "As a parent, I totally condoned it."

The flyswatter spankings were "light-weight, just kids having fun; they loved it," Reece said.

District spokeswoman Albrecht described Hathorn as a good teacher whose return to the classroom was deemed appropriate. But she added, "It comes back down to best practices and we did receive concerns, and we identified a couple of concerns that we thought were not best practices." The flyswatter spankings was one of them, Albrecht said.

The district will forward its investigation to police and to the state Office of Professional Practices for review, she added.

Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659


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