Controversy brews over bathroom-cleaning punishment at Berkeley elementary school

Maggie Soun/Staff

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An 11-year-old student at a Berkeley elementary school contracted whooping cough after purportedly cleaning bathrooms as a punishment for alleged bullying.

Magdalene King’ori, the mother of the LeConte Elementary School fifth-grade student, claimed her son cleaned the bathrooms for a total of six days after a bullying incident April 30 in which he was a bystander. King’ori learned about the punishment May 14, a week after it started.

After King’ori found out about her son’s punishment, she filed a complaint to the school. The school, King’ori said, did not inform her of the bullying incident or subsequent punishment.

According to Berkeley Unified School District spokesperson Mark Coplan, the students who were accused of bullying were given various options for their punishment, such as sweeping or picking up trash in the auditorium, playground or bathroom. There was no thorough cleaning or scrubbing involved in any of the punishments, Coplan said.

King’ori’s son did not scrub the bathroom but picked up paper towels using gloves, Coplan said.

Yusef Auletta, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at the elementary school whose students were involved in the bullying incident, said not all of the students involved chose the same punishment. Some students chose to pick up trash on the playground, while other students chose to pick up paper towels in the bathroom, he said.

Regarding the policies toward bullying, Coplan said the school district is on the forefront of addressing bullying. Although this controversy came as a surprise, it is not unusual to see community service as a form of punishment, he added.

“Campus beautification should push students in the right direction, not be a health service issue,” Coplan said.

King’ori, however, took issue with the options offered to the students.

“Why is cleaning bathrooms one of the options?” she said.

Additionally, her son contracted whooping cough after his punishment of cleaning bathrooms, King’ori said. She added that her son’s health was compromised by the punishment because bathrooms are health hazards.

Coplan said he does not think the whooping cough was contracted from cleaning the bathroom.

According to King’ori, her son went back to school Wednesday.

“I want to find a good resolution,” King’ori said. “I was not given a chance to protect my son.”

Auletta said he hoped this controversy would not bring a bad reputation to the students and the school, which commences its summer break Friday.

“I hate to see this impacting students and for the school year to end this way,” Auletta said.

The following letter was sent from the school district’s director of student services to the parents. The names of minors and personal contact information have been redacted by The Daily Californian, at the request of the parents. 

Staff writer Ivy Kim contributed to this report.

Contact Octavia Sun at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @@octavia_sun.