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School CP - March 2008

Corpun file 20116


The London Free Press, Ontario, 27 March 2008

Teachers admit strapping pupils

By Jane Sims
Sun Media

ST. THOMAS -- It's another case of corporal punishment traditions colliding with the law.

But this time there were no courthouse protests.

Rather, there was courtroom support for a principal and a kindergarten teacher of an Aylmer-area Mennonite school.

Johan Penner, 30, principal at the Old Colony Christian School, pleaded guilty to six counts of assault with a weapon -- a brown belt without a buckle.

Anna Klassen, 42, pleaded guilty to one count.

Supporting them was a large group of people from their Mennonite community.

"They are gentle people, they are peace-loving people, which makes it more interesting that they be in a court of law on something like this," said their lawyer, Gord Cudmore.

"It is the last place they would find themselves and, quite frankly, it's the last place they should be."

The educators were arrested in February and charged after child welfare workers discovered, while looking into an unrelated matter, seven boys, ages 9 and 10, had been hit with the belt on the buttocks over their clothes.

But unlike the Church of God case in 2001, in which the religious group took a tough stand against the law, the close-knit, law-abiding community in this case is willing to make changes.

"I think there is a better understanding of the issue than there was before," Cudmore said. "And I don't think you have the same hardening of the two sides."

Assistant Crown attorney Kim Johnson said Elgin OPP were first looking into a suspected assault of a nine-year-old boy at the school on Dingle Drive, then expanded their probe to include all the boys after it was discovered Penner used the belt on six of them and Klassen on one.

One of the boys was hit with the belt for leaving school property at recess and lunch for a nearby wooded area. Another was strapped for holding a friend and spinning around with him at recess.

One boy was hit for breaking off the plastic point of a fire alarm. Another refused to co-operate with his Grade 4 teacher.

Child welfare workers seized the belt from Penner.

Johnson said all the parents at the school knew corporal punishment could be used as a last resort for discipline.

Cudmore pointed out to Getliffe that the strapping was done in accordance with school policy. There were no injuries, no anger, no malice and "no thought of violence" when the boys were struck, he said.

The Criminal Code allows corporal punishment by parents and teachers. But, Cudmore added, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2004 that using an object "may be seen as unreasonable."

And for that reason, his clients were pleading guilty, Cudmore said, even though Canada's highest court left the issue "frighteningly vague."

The community is changing its school policies, Cudmore said. It uses the belt because it sees the hand "as a tool of God" and not for disciplining, he said.

"In their belief, you do not use the hand as a tool of punishment. The hand is there to caress, to nurture, to give comfort to a child.

"You don't confuse the child with saying this hand is something that I'm going to use sometimes to give you a hug and sometimes to whack you on the rear end."

He said he would seek discharges for his clients when they return for sentencing July 15. "I'm hopeful that these people will not walk away with a criminal record."

blob Follow-up: 16 July 2008 - Bum rap ends in absolute discharge for Mennonites

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