When a Spanish teacher at H.E. McCracken Middle School was criminally charged and placed on leave for allegedly hitting a disruptive student on the back, parents and former students reacted quickly and vocally.
Many who posted comments at islandpacket.com and beaufortgazette.com defended the teacher, 39-year-old Lester Lara. Several -- apparently colleagues or former students -- said he is an excellent teacher who doesn't deserve to be punished for losing patience with a smart-alecky student.
The 14-year-old student in Lara's class hadn't been paying attention and wasn't in his assigned seat, according to the Bluffton Police Department. Lara approached him and tried to take an iPad from him, police said.
The student pulled away and swore at Lara, who slapped the student on his back with a leather pouch several times, according to police.
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Lara, who has taught for 13 years, turned himself in to police the next morning.
"I cannot even believe this!" said one commenter. "Lester was such a sweet/kind person in school and I am certain that hasn't changed. I hope that they examine the character of both student and teacher before coming to conclusions. Teaching middle school is very tough."
CORPORAL PUNISHMENT FORBIDDEN
So how are teachers in Beaufort County supposed to handle disruptive students?
State law allows corporal punishment, but leaves it to school districts to decide whether use it. The practice is forbidden in Beaufort County schools, which has chosen an approach aimed at correcting students' behavior by supporting them, according to district officials.
"Everyone is human and we all have our breaking points. But what we rely on is for our teachers to recognize when their breaking point is about to be reached and then bring in the additional support that we have in place in the schools," Beaufort County school superintendent Jeffrey Moss said.
Moss would not comment directly on Lara's situation, but made it clear that teachers aren't allowed to strike students.
"Teachers aren't going to administer or be deciding on a student's punishment," Moss said. Rather, "interventions" can be employed to change a student's behavior, such as having a school social worker or guidance counselor work with the student.
Schools also use an approach called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, which lets students know how they are expected to behave, then recognizes them for better behavior.
If interventions don't work, teachers can send unruly students to the principal, who will decide the next step -- in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, expulsion or sending a student to an alternative education program, for example.
Bill Evans, chairman of the Beaufort County Board of Education, is familiar with student discipline issues; he was principal of Hilton Head Island High School for several years.
"I'm not making excuses for Mr. Lara, but in my mind it is what it is," Evans said. "I think it was just a demonstration of how difficult a child is sometimes. You get in difficult situations and get tested and you react."
Evans remembers Lara as a student.
"I knew him and I had him in high school," Evans said. "It took me back quite a bit because I had no experience with him in that kind of manner. ... I know him to be an excellent teacher and I know from people who have called me -- some of his colleagues and parents -- that he is very well respected."
Lara has been on administrative leave since Dec. 4. Evans said he understands that Lara will return in January after the holiday break.
"He is going to come back after the holidays and I'm sure he will make the adjustments that he needs to make and will continue to be a very successful teacher," Evans said.
Lara's court date on the criminal charges -- simple assault and third-degree battery -- is Jan. 7, according to court records. An attempt this week to reach him for comment was unsuccessful.
BEHIND THE PROBLEM
Teachers are more frequently confronted with "challenging moments" like Lara's but are less-equipped to handle them, said Larry Thompson, who created a discipline program focused on making students take responsibility for their actions.
Thompson, a long-time educator and principal, said students today seem to be less respectful and often aren't taught how to work through problems at home.
However, Thompson said teachers could also be better prepared to stay calm in trying moments -- like the one that confronted Lara. Thompson said the classroom management training educators receive does not prepare them.
"In a teacher's defense and any one's defense, without receiving training on how to handle student behavior problems that arise, it's really hard to do that," he said. "We don't prepare teachers well and then we're mad at them when they don't handle a situation right."
Moss said he thinks the training for Beaufort County teachers does an "adequate job" of preparing them. However, he said the district is always looking for ways to improve how it disciplines students.
"There is not any one formula will work with a student in assuring that the consequence will change the behavior with a student," he said. "So it's ongoing, and it's trial and error."
Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.