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"Catastrophe" Award: Was the teacher's use of that specific word a bad choice?

Catastrophe award given to 3rd grade student

"Catastrophe" Award: Was the teacher's use of that specific word a bad choice?

CREATED Jun 4, 2012

Reporter: Valerie Cavazos

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - A third grader is given a Catastrophe Award in front of her class.  Our 9OYS story went viral last week and continues to generate heated debate on who's to blame -- the parent or the teacher. But one aspect continues to be buried in those thousands of online criticisms and it's the primary reason the story even surfaced.

Remember the rhyme: Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Many of us have repeatedly said that as kids, but many of us would admit that certain words can cut deep.

And some words, experts say, should not be used to describe someone at all, especially to a young student in a classroom.

When Christina Valdez saw the Catastrophe Award that was given to her daughter by her third grade teacher, she was stunned. "I actually had to read it a few times to realize what it said," she said.

It was the teacher's choice to use the word -- catastrophe.

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines it as:
1. a momentous tragic event ranging from extreme misfortune to utter overthrow or ruin
2. utter failure.

KGUN 9 reporter Valerie Cavazos wanted to know how others define catastrophe. Shelly Davenport defined it as "probably global warming, chaos, some hunger, famine." Caroline Sawvelle said it's a "devastating event that changes society."

And if you google the word, images that pop up reflect total disaster. Cavazos asked Robert Davenport what images came to his mind. He answered, "Total devastation. Gale Campbell said she sees images of 9-11.

Even though Cassandra Garcia's teacher said the award was a joke, Christina says it was hard for her to get past what the award signified and that her daughter was "tops."

Education experts agree that negative awards shouldn't be given in classrooms, even if they're in jest. Associate Dean of the UA College of Education said,  "I think any time you single out a child and an adult and publicly humiliate them. That's inappropriate."

Education experts can only guess as to why the teacher chose that specific word. Psychologist Sheri Bauman thought, "It may be a misguided attempt at humor."

But all the educators we spoke to agree: Using that particular word --  Catastrophe -- was the wrong choice.

The blame game continues to go back and forth online, but experts say it's more important that everyone involved learned from this incident and changes are made in a positive direction.

Christina has received two letters of apology from the charter school's governing board and the school director. They acknowledge the award was inappropriate.