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Assistant principal pulled on students’ toes when their grades fell

TAMPA – from – Catholic school nuns used to have a reputation for wrapping knuckles with rulers, and some hard-line principals hang paddles with holes in them on their office walls.

But toe popping?

This unique way to get the attention of wayward students appeared to be a favorite of a King High School assistant principal, although whether it is considered corporal punishment is up for debate.

Five students told authorities they had their toes popped by Olayinka Alege after their grades had slipped. None said the toe popping hurt, but some said it did feel kind of weird.

The toe popping ended up under investigation by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and was even reviewed by the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office, both of which concluded there didn’t appear to be any criminality involved.

In May, deputies interviewed five students and Alege, who, after he was read his rights, declined to talk to detectives, a report said.

Some of the students, whose names were not released by the sheriff’s office, felt the toe popping was strange, but none said it hurt or injured them.

One student told deputies he was called into Alege’s office this past school year to discuss the student’s declining grades and was ordered to remove a shoe and sock, “and lift up a foot and Mr. Alege popped his toes by pulling them out and bending them down.”

Alege told one student that, “He could not hit him so the toe popping was a form of punishment,” the report said.

The student told deputies it didn’t hurt, but the student “felt it was weird.”

Another student said he was told by Alege that, ” ‘I will pop a toe for each bad grade you have.’ ” The student said the incident made him feel uncomfortable, but he was not injured, the report said.

And another student told deputies he has had his toes popped by Alege about 20 times.

“When he gets bad grades,” the report said of the student, “he gets his toes popped.”

Some students found the toe popping humorous and laughed about it, the report said. One told deputies that his toes were popped so often, that whenever he is called into the assistant principal’s office, “he just gives Mr. Alege his foot.”

The report said Alege also popped toes for reasons other than bad grades. One student gave this account, according to the report:

The student “told Mr. Alege he would help him set up something after school, but he [the student] did not show up. [The student] said Mr. Alege confronted him the next day and popped his toes. While popping his toes, Mr. Alege told [the student] that maybe next time, he will show up and listen.”

The nine-page report was turned over to the Hillsborough school district.

School district spokesman Steve Hegarty said Alege is an immensely popular principal among the students at King High.

“He has a great rapport with students,” Hegarty said. “He mentors them, and when they do well he lets them know. And some students were not doing everything they needed to do. At one point, Mr. Alege decided on a playful way to let them know they needed to do better.”

The toe popping was not considered discipline, Hegarty said.

“Someone – none of the students involved – had a problem with it and may have misinterpreted it and complained,” Hegarty said.

The sheriff’s office investigated and took no action. School board officials did not investigate the matter because there was no dispute of the facts.

“We had his principal sit down with him and told him it’s something he should not continue to do,” Hegarty said, and Alege agreed.

School Board Member Candy Olson said she was satisfied with the sheriff’s office investigation and did not see a need for the board to pursue it further. Alege has a good relationship with students, she said, but exercised bad judgment.

“When you’re dealing with children in the public environment, you have to be careful beyond careful,” she said.

The incident caught the attention of Robert Fathman, president of the National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment in Schools, based in Ohio.

“Toe-popping does not sound like corporal punishment if it didn’t hurt the kids,” Fathman said in an e-mail to The Tampa Tribune on Friday afternoon. “But they all seemed to report that they felt “weird.” Hasn’t the school board heard of “good-touch, bad-touch?”

Toe popping is similar to knuckle cracking, said local podiatrist Barry Blass. But it can have long term effects, he said, if done repeatedly.

“You can pull them forward and they’ll pop or you can push them back and they’ll pop or you can pull them down with force and they’ll pop,” he said.

“Can this hurt? If you pull if far enough you could theoretically tear tendon or a joint capsule,” he said. “But you’d have to pull it pretty far and you’d have somebody in significant pain long before it would get to the point of causing damage.”

Psychologist Stacey Scheckner said she considers toe popping abusive.

“Nobody is allowed to touch a student in the form of discipline or otherwise,” she said. “And whatever actions the students did, the consequence needed to be directly related to that misbehavior. The consequence needed to be specific, concrete and related to the incident that will actually teach them a lesson. Next time, instead of choosing to misbehave, they would think about what they were doing.”

Neither Alege nor Principal Carla Bruning could be reached for comment this morning.

According to King’s Web site, Alege, 28, attended Hillsborough County schools and graduated from the University of South Florida with a bachelor’s degree in English education.

Alege taught English and language arts at King as well as the Project Upward Bound/College Reach-Out Programs at USF for five years. After he received his master’s degree in educational leadership, he was appointed assistant principal for student affairs at Middleton High School in 2005.

In November 2007, he was appointed assistant principal for curriculum and returned to King. A native of Dallas, he lived in Nigeria as a young child, the Web page said.


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