ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) Elementary school teacher Lori Thomas was placed on paid leave for dishing out some old-fashioned discipline washing a boy's mouth out with a dab of soap after he shouted an obscenity at a classmate.
More than three months later, she is still barred from the classroom, and her frustration with the school district's own disciplinary procedures has convinced her to take to the street.
``If I can't teach from the classroom, I'll teach by example,'' read a sandwich board she carried back and forth as she picketed Wednesday outside the district's offices.
Thomas, 48, who has taught for six years at inner-city School 22, said she was stunned when a 10-year-old pupil directed ``a vile, very nasty sexual reference'' at a girl as third-graders shuffled back into class from a playground break in March.
The boy had frequently been sent home for unruly behavior minutes earlier, he tried without success to pick a fight with another boy, Thomas said. But rather than let him get his way and earn another one-week suspension, Thomas decided to try something her mother taught her.
``Old-fashioned ways work,'' she said unapologetically.
She took the boy to the nurse's office, she said, ``put a drop of soap of his lower lip, washed it out immediately and told him I never wanted to hear filth like that coming out of his mouth again.''
The boy behaved for the remainder of the day ``as we were walking back to class, the child was smiling, he knew I cared about him'' and didn't complain to his foster mother, Thomas said. District officials, she said, learned about what had happened from the boy's brother.
Thomas was suspended indefinitely. A district official said an investigation will likely be wrapped up within two weeks.
``I wish we could have handled this more expeditiously too,'' acknowledged Joanne Giuffrida, personnel chief in the 6,000-employee school district. ``It's just a question of apportioning our resources.''
Although Thomas hasn't been charged, her plight remains unclear. The district could either fire her even though tenure provides such teachers ``a lot of protection'' or level ``a lesser amount of discipline,'' Giuffrida said.
Under New York law, schools must report ``any possible allegations of child abuse that occur in a school setting,'' Giuffrida said. Teachers generally resort to physical contact with students only in extreme cases aimed at ensuring ``the child's safety or the safety of others.''
``I have always thought of `washing your mouth out with soap' as an expression, not an option,'' said Adam Urbanski, president of the teachers' union.
The district's code of conduct forbids corporal punishment and ``it's for the school district to consider whether they consider this corporal punishment,'' Urbanski said.
``We think the district acted appropriately'' in launching an investigation, he said, but ``it is no revelation to me that the district is slow.''
More than 40 parents and relatives of children in Thomas' class have asked for her to be reinstated. ``We would rather have her back,'' wrote one girl's aunt, Juanita McMillan.
``I stay with my students for three years,'' Thomas said. ``Many parents request their child be in my classroom because they know I'm strict and I teach more than reading and writing and arithmetic. I teach self-respect, I teach them to believe in themselves.''
Teaching is ``such a passion for me,'' added Thomas, a single parent of three who was accompanied Wednesday by her 19-year-old son, Daniel, who expects to enlist in the Army in July.
``My mom loves these kids,'' he said, recalling one occasion years ago when she put soap in his mouth to teach him an abiding lesson. ``She treats them with the same respect and dignity as she gave us.''
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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