When a Wisconsin 2nd grader returned school library materials that
were damaged beyond repair, and repeated letters to his parents went
unanswered, the school librarian proposed that the youngster work off
the debt of $8.25.
The punishment—the student was to help out in the library during 15-minute morning recesses for 17 days—was a lesson in responsibility, Annette Eismann, the librarian at Maywood Elementary School in Monona, reasoned. She estimated that each session would pay off 50 cents in restitution. But the boy’s father, Larry Volkey Jr., called it forced labor and filed a complaint with state labor officials.
The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development ruled this month that the arrangement did indeed break child-labor laws.
Under those laws, children may work only if they are at least 12 years old, hold a work permit, and are paid the minimum wage.
Now, state officials are drafting a rule change that would allow schools to assign students to work-related activities as punishment.
The revision would bring the rule in line with federal law, which permits students to work up to an hour a day, five days a week, to ante up for misbehavior.
"Wisconsin schools should have the flexibility to appropriately discipline their students," Linda Stewart, the state secretary for workforce development, said in a recent statement. "Our laws should allow room for common sense, and this rule change will do that."
Elgie L. Noble, the superintendent of the 2,500-student Monona Grove school district, which includes Maywood, said teachers in the district have long used such measures to discipline students and would continue to do so in the future. But they will avoid assigning monetary value to the assigned tasks.
"The librarian was teaching responsibility, but technically ... it was a violation," Mr. Noble said. "I think the parent was sending the wrong message to his son by the action he took."
Mr. Volkey, who could not be reached for comment last week, has since paid for the damaged materials.
The workforce-development department will hold a public hearing on the proposed rule change next month.
—Kathleen Kennedy Manzo
Vol. 19, Issue 12, Page 16