BALDWIN COUNTY, Ala. (WALA) - The saying in the world of law and ethics is “let the punishment fit the crime.” But recently, a group of Baldwin County parents claimed the discipline their kids received didn’t quite fit.
“I couldn't believe it. The first thing I thought was jail. A 10-year-old. What did he do so bad to get put in?” Alec Barnett, parent and Baldwin County NAACP president said.
He and six other parents filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Mobile claiming Foley Intermediate School and Central Baldwin Middle School had misused their On Campus Suspension (OCS) systems.
“I can understand OCS if you're going to put them in a classroom somewhere, but in a box? Be humiliated? Classmate walking through the hall, peeking in there, peeking at him. No," Barnett said.
The “box” Barnett mentions is what the lawsuit refers to as a “black box.” As it’s described, it sounds like a study carrel or a three-sided desk with sides that block things out for a focused work place. When we asked Baldwin County Public Schools Spokesman Terry Wilhite about them, he said that’s all they are.
“"Study carrels are very common across the United States and in Baldwin County public schools. And we want the very best educational assets and resources for our kids,” Wilhite said.
And therefore, Wilhite said, this should be a non-issue.
“When there's a concern, the thing to do is to talk to the principal about those concerns. Some people have talked to us about study carrels. It's kind of mind-boggling that they would have concerns over something that's used at all educational institutions," he said.
The concern, in part, is what makes them come across to some as “boxes.” In conversations with the parents and some of their kids, they say the fourth side came from the carrel being flush against the wall. The parents are frustrated since they said no one told them what OCS was.
“The whole time she was in OCS, I thought she was in a classroom with other kids. And I was not aware because they never mentioned once to me about a black box or showed me the black box to let me know where she'd be at. They just told me she'd be in an OCS class."
The complaints about the alleged box go beyond the physical constraint. Parents say their children weren’t allowed to use the bathroom when they asked, they took their lunch an hour or so after the other children, and many times they didn’t have work to do.
According to the Baldwin County Public School website, the first two points do have an explanation. Points 16 and seven say the OCS personnel decide when bathroom breaks can be taken and that students have a different lunch period to keep them separate from other students.
The last point does go against what the website says should be done.
“A lot of times they wouldn't give you any work. You'd just be sitting in there. And I have fallen asleep in there,” Barnett’s son said.
He, along with the other children were asked to not be named to protect their identities as minors.
“And I got in trouble because I'm not supposed to be asleep. But I had nothing better to do. I had no work. I was just sitting in there doing nothing," he said.
A student, now in the tenth grade, talked about another problem parents have with the so-called boxes: the amount of time spent in them. He had that punishment multiple times over fourth, fifth and sixth grades.
“I kinda got in trouble some and one teacher, she put me in the black box, well it was blue at the time, in the corner for like three months,” he said.
According to the school website, OCS is not recommended for more than 10 days per school year. But for this student, time wasn’t the only odd part. He said he was also put in a closet for reasons unknown to him.
“I just had OCS that day and they put me in a closet in the library.”
The students we spoke with have all since moved onto other Baldwin County schools where they say OCS is very different.
“We're in a classroom like we're supposed to be in OCS. There are three rows of desks and you're facing a board,” Martinez’s daughter said. “There ain't no black box there, just desks. And you can get things done.”
“It’s a regular classroom, with regular desks and we just sit and they bring the work,” Barnett’s son said.
Despite what the school system says now, Barnett claims the Foley Intermediate Staff was comfortable using the term “box” while his son was a student. Barnett said the term was used by school staff during a meeting he and his wife attended.
The parents in the suit also claim the school’s use of the so-called boxes were racially driven, alleging their children were unfairly targeted based on their race. They also said the school ignored the fact that some of these students have an IEP, or Individualized Education Program for various conditions like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
At the time of this report, the defendants in the suit, the Baldwin County Board of Education, former Foley Intermediate Principal Lee Mansell, and Central Baldwin Middle School Principal Chuck Anderson, have not yet been served. Fox10 News will have more on their side of the allegations when they have been officially served.
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