The Arizona Republic, May 5, 1998
HE'S AN ARMY VETERAN WITH A TOUGH STYLE, BUT SOME WONDER, IS HE TOO TOUGH ON KIDS?
PRINCIPAL'S METHODS IN PARKER ARE SUBJECT OF PARENTS' LAWSUIT
By Mark Shaffer, The Arizona Republic
Spitting. There had been this awful problem with kids spitting at Blake Primary School, Principal Sam Heeringa said.
Spitting on the ground, on the basketball court, he said. Even on the balls that other children played with in this K-3 school near the edge of a bluff overlooking the Colorado River.
If there's a wrong place to spit, it's in a school run by Heeringa, a tough Army veteran who until recently sequestered misbehaving students in a school store room, sometimes for hours at a time.
One pupil found out the hard way two months ago. The third-grade boy spit on a concrete walkway. His teacher went ballistic.
''The teacher said, 'Get on your hands and knees and lick it up like a dog,' '' said one adult witness who asked not to be identified.
''It was the most humiliating thing I've ever seen. The whole class of 25 or 30 was around him when he licked it up. It upset me so bad that I wanted to walk away and throw up.''
The teacher's contract has not been renewed.
Heeringa acknowledged that the March 9 incident was ''unfortunately not the way you solve a problem.
''The students had discussed the problem of spitting and agreed that's what should happen to the next student who did it. Many of them had picked up playground balls with spit on them.''
The incident raised a lot of eyebrows in Parker, where some residents applaud Heeringa's disciplinarian style and others consider it a disgrace. But it hasn't yet placed the Parker Unified School District in a legal jam like the isolation policy for troublesome students that Heeringa used until last year.
Robyn and Andrew Davis, the parents of then-6-year-old Robin, filed suit last month in La Paz County Superior Court alleging negligence, emotional distress and false imprisonment of their son by Heeringa on Dec. 12, 1996.
According to the suit, the child, who's been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, was placed lone in the storage closet for more than two hours out of sight of school personnel.
The suit alleges that Robin Davis has suffered ''severe nightmares . . . crying fits . . . fear of being in a room or bathroom alone'' and ''loss of self-worth and self-confidence as a result of the actions of Mr. Heeringa.''
Heeringa would not discuss the suit but said he resented parents calling the 8- by 10-foot storage room, containing one narrow window, a closet, preferring to term it a ''time out'' room.
Andrew Davis, on the other hand, considers it closer to a torture chamber.
''After I heard about this I went up to the school and asked Heeringa to show me the room,'' Davis said. ''I told him that if he ever put my kid in that room again he would have hell to pay. So, he called the cops on me.''
Robyn Davis said she became aware of the room shortly before the incident with her son when she was waiting for him one day just outside Heeringa's office shortly before lunch.
''I heard these screams . . . and it took us about 10 minutes to find it by going to each door and putting our ears against them,'' said Robyn Davis, who was accompanied by a teacher.
''The little boy had sweat pouring down his head and was sitting at this little desk. There was no ventilation.''
That child was Mona Banuelos' 6-year-old son, Josh.
''From what I've been able to find out, he was basically there all morning,'' Banuelos said, ''and it was all because he took another kid's glue or some minutiae like that.
''I really regret letting this go at the time, but I had other kids who would attend that school, and I didn't want them harassed.''
Eddie Banks, a former teacher's aide at Blake school, said that he had seen four students being sent to the closet by Heeringa, including two developmentally disabled students. Heeringa acknowledged sending students to the isolated room, but refused to discuss who they were or any of the details.
The March spitting incident wasn't the first crackdown on spitting, Banks said.
He said another teacher's aide saw three third-grade boys, who had been repeatedly chastised about spitting, given small cups by Heeringa and ordered to spit into them until they were half full. They were then ordered by the principal to drink the saliva, Banks said.
Heeringa denied it.
The principal is not without his supporters.
Liz Kruse, president of the Blake parent advisory council, said all the naysayers should just get off Heeringa's back. She calls him a ''very fair man who stands by his principles.''
Kruse also said that more than 90 percent of the parents of students in Blake school back Heeringa and the use of corporal punishment there.
''Those kids love him,'' Kruse said. ''His discipline is working. The number of referrals (to the principal's office) is way down. Hey, I'm 45 and if I even looked at my mom in a bad way, boom, I got whacked in the butt. It's a good deterrent.''
But Heeringa said he has had to use the paddle in his office only once during the past two years.
''I believe in assertive discipline,'' Heeringa said. ''Students who act bad have natural consequences. These are the rules.''
His allies say that Principal Sam Heeringa's style as a disciplinarian is keeping the kids in line.