During a Tuesday sentencing hearing at Magistrates’ Court, attorney Valerie Gordon asked Magistrate Khadeen Palmer to forego a custodial sentence and impose a sentence of community service on former teacher Tiye Hodge, who previously pleaded guilty to dealing with a noxious substance in a negligent manner.
Ms. Hodge was charged after she punished one of her students at Ivan Dawson Primary School for using foul language last January by forcing them to gargle rubbing alcohol, said Ms. Gordon, who recalled the allegations against her client while making her submission during the Tuesday sentencing hearing.
According to Ms. Gordon, her client, then 23, had been teaching for only a year, and had sought guidance from her principal, who recommended that she instruct the misbehaving student to clean their mouth with rubbing alcohol or Dettol.
Although both Ms. Gordon and Ms. Hodge agreed that responsibility rested on the defendant’s shoulders, Ms. Gordon said that in seeking the advice of her superior, Ms. Hodge was simply doing what most young people are encouraged to do when starting their careers.
Such punishments, she added, are sometimes encouraged in VI culture.
However, she reaffirmed that Ms. Hodge had accepted responsibility for her mistake, completed counseling, and found new work in a related field — and should thus be ordered to complete community service instead of prison time.
“We are asking the court to consider sentences … that can be carried out in the community that sends the message” that punishments such as gargling alcohol are unacceptable, Ms. Gordon said.
The attorney added that Ms. Hodge is willing to compensate the student up to $2,000, and noted that the maximum fine for the charge is $500, while the maximum custodial sentence is six months’ imprisonment.
She also said Ms. Hodge dreamed of becoming a teacher, and giving up that dream has been its own form of punishment.
Ms. Hodge also took the stand.
“I accept full responsibility and wish to express my full apologies to the defendant and their family,” she said.
According to Ms. Gordon, her client had no intention of harming the complainant.
Rather, the lawyer said, “She foolishly thought it was a responsible means of discipline.”
After making her submission, Ms. Gordon called Bernadine Louis, director of the Virgin Islands Studies Institute at H. Lavity Stoutt Community College, to the stand as a character witness.
While responding to questions from Ms. Gordon, Ms. Louis, who works with Ms. Hodge at the college, said the defendant is “a very pleasant young lady,” and that she “is congenial and hardworking.”
Ms. Louis, who is close with Ms. Hodge’s parents and has known the defendant all her life, said that Ms. Hodge’s decision to reprimand the student in such a way was out of character and that she should have used better judgment.
“I am asking the court to be merciful because she is a good person,” Ms. Louis said, adding, “I do not think she will repeat this terrible mistake.”
The VI Dictionary
Ms. Louis also testified that phrases or “idioms” that could be seen as encouraging such punishments are “part of the cultural heritage” of the territory.
To demonstrate this point, Ms. Gordon asked Ms. Louis to read an entry in The Virgin Islands Dictionary by Kareem-Nelson Hull for the phrase “Wash Yuh Mout.”
Ms. Louis said the phrase — which the dictionary says can be meant as a threat to “clear the mouth out with soap and water” — is generally acknowledged as humorous and not something to be taken literally.
‘I don’t condone this’
Asked by Ms. Gordon if she condones forcing children to gargle rubbing alcohol to teach them a lesson, Ms. Louis said, “No, I don’t condone this at all.”
Crown Counsel Jamal Bridgewater briefly cross-examined Ms. Louis, but did not make any submissions about Ms.Hodge’s sentencing.
Ms. Hodge will be sentenced on Jan. 24, Magistrate Khadeen Palmer said.