"Catastrophe Award" school apologizes; mom responds to criticism

An education expert explains why the 9OYS story created a firestorm of debate

CREATED May 31, 2012 - UPDATED: Jun 1, 2012

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  • Desert Springs Academy Governing Board sent student a letter of apology.

Reporter: Valerie Cavazos

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) -- A teacher gives 8-year-old Cassandra Garcia an end of the year "Catastrophe Award" in front of the entire class. The mother is upset because she says her daughter was humilitated.  After 9 On Your Side's 's original story, which aired May 24th, went viral, the backlash began.

The online views and comments came in droves. By Thursday, the story had racked up more than 75,000 page views on KGUN9.com.   A version posted on one national news website was that site's top story Thursday morning, and racked up more 65,000 viewer comments from across the nation.

Those numbers stunned the school and the mother.   "I was shocked and stunned why this went viral so quickly," Christina Valdez, Cassandra's mother, told Cavazos in a follow-up interview Thursday afternoon.

Christina was shocked that the Catastrophe Award story created such a national firestorm.  Some commenters were supportive, but many were not, accusing Valdez of shirking her responsibilty in making sure her daughter's homework gets done.

KGUN 9 reporter Valerie Cavazos sat down with Valdez to get her reaction to the online comments.

Cavazos: "Some of the many comments primarily aimed at you calling you MIA. Your response to that?"
Valdez: "No, I'm not missing in action. I'm with my kids all the time if they're not with their father. We do check their homework. We have a routine that they do, every day."

Valdez and Cassandra's father do not live together and they share custody of their daughter.

Desert Springs Academy touts its push to hold students personally responsible for their work. Valdez said she followed the school's guidelines. "I check the homework. We have a routine. It's her responsibility to turn in her homework," which she said the school teaches.  Christina said the teacher only told her about the homework issue at the beginning of the year. She said she dealt with it and the teacher never told her it was a problem after that.

Tens of thousands of people questioned why the award was given to the student if she wasn't to blame. Cavazos asked Valdez: "So why then would your child receive an award like that having the most excuses for not having homework?"

Valdez replied, "People have their own opinion. People don't know what's going on or just completely overseeing the point of this story."
Cavazos: "Which is?
Valdez: "The Catastrophe Award. It's cruel."

The school has now changed its defense, having said earlier that the award was a joke.  The Desert Springs Academy Governing Board sent a letter to Cassandra. It states: "It has come to our attention that an inappropriate award was given to you by your teacher. The Governing Board of Desert Springs Academy sends our heartfelt apology to you and your mother."

KGUN9, Valdez and Desert Springs Academy have received numerous emails and phone calls on both sides of the debate. The school director told KGUN 9 reporter Valerie Cavazos that it's been a learning experience for the school. And it's been quite an experience for mother and daughter.

Cavazos: "Has she learned a lesson from this?
Valdez: Yes.
Cavazos: Will she get her homework done?
Valdez: Yes.

So why did the story create such a firestorm of debate? Psychologist Sheri Bauman of the Unveristy of Arizona College of Education explained why many people came out in support of the mother and daughter. She said, "I think so many people of all ages recall those times when they've been humiliated publically and perhaps in a school setting and all the emotional response returns."

On the flip side, thousands of people applauded the teacher for using the Catastrophe Award as an effective motivational tool. Cavazos asked Bauman if the flood of online comments stem from people thinking that our nation is raising kids who make a lot of excuses and parents who model that behavior. Bauman replied, "I think those things might in fact exist, but this isn't an example of that."

Bauma said the bottom line is the Catastrophe Award was inappropriate for a child that age. "So we're learning that in fact these strategies don't produce the desired changes and the attention that it originally might have been to show that if you don't behave these terrible things happen to you and the goal was therefore you won't do those things. But we've learned that's just not what happens. "

KGUN9 interviewed and heard from dozens of educators and administrators who also said that the award was inappropriate for a child that age.

Some KGUN9 viewers posted comments saying that the teacher should be fired, but Bauman didn't agree. She said the teacher made a bad judgment call. Valdez also said she didn't want the teacher fired. She said she just wanted an apology and hopes that the teacher doesn't continue to give out that type of award to any other students.

The school's director said Mrs. Plowman is a good teacher and she was stunned by the reaction to the story.