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Tjon case prompts review

The case involving former West Fargo teacher Mavis Tjon is closed, but its effects could ripple to districts across the state. Four local legislators are looking into legislation that could require school districts to follow the state statute on ...

Mavis Tjon

The case involving former West Fargo teacher Mavis Tjon is closed, but its effects could ripple to districts across the state.

Four local legislators are looking into legislation that could require school districts to follow the state statute on corporal punishment.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Wayne Sanstead said it would be a monumental change in policy for the state.

"We're much more a local-control state than most," Sanstead said, adding that it's not unusual to leave hiring and firing policies open for districts to individually interpret. "The districts really believe they're the hiring authority."

While discussions are "very preliminary," Rep. Blair Thoreson, R-Fargo, Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, Rep. Don Clark, R-Fargo, and Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo, hope to draft a bill before September that would mandate the state's corporal punishment policy to keep it uniform across the state. They say it would help protect teachers in situations such as Tjon's because it wouldn't leave the policy as ambiguous.

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Thoreson said they could present the bill in the 2009 session, which could help clear up the "gray area" in state policy - the last line of which says it's up to districts to adopt their own corporal punishment policy.

State statute defines corporal punishment as the willful infliction of physical pain. The West Fargo School District's policy doesn't include "willful" in its definition - the action is just "physical pain inflicted on a student."

Lee, who is a friend of the Tjon family, said that makes West Fargo's policy more stringent because proof a teacher had intent to harm the child isn't needed.

"If there's something we can do to make the system more fair, we should do it," Lee said.

Fargo School District policy states that "a physical blow to the head is strictly prohibited." It also states, though, that "corporal punishment should not be defined as action taken by an employee for self-defense, protection of persons or property, quelling of a disturbance or obtaining possession of a weapon or other dangerous object."

Lowell Wolff, the assistant to the superintendent for communication and planning, said there will always be gray areas with an issue such as corporal punishment.

"I think the solution is on a case-by-case basis," he said. "I think anytime you have a one-size-fits-all (policy), there are some unintended consequences."

Flakoll said local legislators want to ensure school is safe for students, while also supporting educators.

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"Our goal is to make sure we have a classroom environment where students and teachers can focus on education instead of continuing to deal with challenging discipline issues," he said.

Thoreson said he has supported Tjon all along.

"I feel I'm doing the right thing," he said. "As soon as I can move forward, there will be a bill drafted."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515

Mavis Tjon

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