Corporal-Punishment Foes Gain Victories, See Best Year Ever
When school officials in the tiny, mountain town of Penasco, N.M., held his daughter upside down by her ankles and gave her five swats with a wooden paddle, Max Garcia was angry.
The Garcias visited the school principal and asked her not to spank 9-year-old Teresa again without first calling the family so that they could make sure the punishment was justified.
When Teresa came home black and blue from another paddling more than a year later, Mr. Garcia decided he "just couldn't take it anymore.''
"Nobody has the authority to punish somebody that way,'' he said.
Mr. Garcia sued the school officials.
The resulting lawsuit, which made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court this year, drew national attention to the use of paddling as a means of discipline in schools.
Equally important, experts around the nation are saying, the case has become a symbol of sorts for the growing movement to abolish corporal punishment in schools. It represents the most visible victory in what has been a year of many small victories in the effort to ban physical methods of disciplining students.
Two states--Nebraska and Wisconsin--this year voted to ban paddling in their public schools. Their actions raised to 11 the number of states with outright bans against the practice.
In Maryland, lawmakers voted to prohibit paddling in 12 of the state's 16 counties.
And more than 20 cities in 15 states outlawed the practice this school year in their own schools. Those cities have included both small towns like Seaford, Del., and larger cities like Little Rock, Ark., and Cincinnati, Ohio.
"Enough large cities have banned corporal punishment so that 35 to 40 percent of America's children attend school without fear of being hit,'' said Robert Fathman, chairman of the fledgling National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment in Schools.
"The past 12 months have probably been the best 12 months for the anti-corporal-punishment movement ever,'' he said.
Despite such successes, an estimated 2 million incidents of corporal punishment occur in schools each year. The practice is legal in the great majority of states and frequently used in the South.
Even the celebrated case of Theresa Miera, J.D. Sanchez, Edward Leyba, Judi Mestas, and Felix Duran v. Teresa Garcia is at best an incomplete victory.
The Supreme Court in March declined to review the case.
In doing so, it let stand a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit that gave parents like the Garcias the right to sue school officials for "grossly excessive'' corporal punishment. The anti-corporal punishment movement had hoped the Court might take the opportunity to reverse its 1977 ruling upholding the use of paddling in schools.
"The Garcia case affects only the Rocky Mountain states and it involves only those cases of corporal punishment where it's excessive,'' said Adah Maurer, executive director of End Violence Against the Next Generation, Inc., a California-based group that opposes corporal punishment. "But it does set a precedent.''
Teresa's injuries were so "excessive'' following her first paddling that her classroom teacher noticed that her leg was bleeding and took her to the restroom. The paddle used by school officials had apparently cracked during the paddling, causing the cut on the front of Teresa's leg.
After the second paddling, a nurse who examined the girl's bruised buttocks told the Garcias that if the child had been injured at home, she would have called police authorities to report a case of child abuse.
An 'Emotional Issue'
That kind of testimony, repeated often in court cases involving corporal punishment around the nation, has been a boon to the effort to end paddling in schools.
"I think parents find it offensive that an institution can do something legally that they as parents cannot do,'' said Rosemary Lamela, a mother from St. Mary's County, Md., who fought to ban corporal punishment in her state.
Maryland lawmakers approved a limited ban on the practice in April--three years after an anti-corporal punishment bill was first introduced in the legislature. The final version, however, protects only 85 percent of Maryland schoolchildren from being paddled. The remaining 15 percent of students attend school in the four rural counties that were excluded from the ban.
"It's an emotional battle,'' noted Ms. Lamela. "It's not a battle of logic.''
Ms. Lamela is also president of her county chapter of People Against Child Abuse, a state organization formed in 1984 to lobby for tougher laws against child abuse. With chapters in nearly every Maryland county, the group is credited with having provided the extra boost needed to pass the ban.
A Link to Child Abuse
Groups like P.A.C.A. are representative of a new and powerful alliance between efforts to prevent child abuse and the movement to end corporal punishment. Experts and advocates say the involvement of the more organized child-abuse-prevention groups has given the anti-paddling effort both an organizational boost and a psychological edge.
"Just having an organization against child abuse take this kind of position makes people say, 'Wait a minute. What's the connection here?''' said Ruth Lee of the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse.
"When used severely enough, corporal punishment could in fact be child abuse,'' she said, "and children who were paddled in school support [anti-abuse efforts] much more as adults.''
Ms. Lee's organization has quickly become one of the most influential national groups joining the fight against paddling in schools.
Other national organizations that have joined the anti-paddling movement in recent years include: the American Medical Association, the Council for Exceptional Children, the American Bar Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National P.T.A., the National Association of School Psychologists, and, most recently, the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union.
Some 'More or Less' Silent
"Many of the other education groups have remained more or less silent or neutral on this,'' noted Ms. Maurer of End Violence Against the Next Generation, Inc.
The American Federation of Teachers is characteristic of those striking a more "neutral'' posture on the issue.
In a policy statement on school discipline, the union flatly states: "The A.F.T. does not believe in corporal punishment.'' It also adds, however, that "teachers' authority to insist upon a disciplined environment should not be jeopardized by law or by school regulations.''
"That kind of grew out of a number of cases in the 1970's, where teachers became embroiled in conflicts among students and the teacher attempts to break it up and winds up getting sued,'' said Ruth Whitman, a spokesman for the union.
Likewise, the National School Boards Association has said decisions over whether to paddle students are best left to local school boards.
"It's the state and local education associations that oppose us that are the real problem,'' said Irwin Hyman, director of the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives in Schools at Temple University.
"The vast majority of teachers do not receive a single course devoted to discipline in the classroom,'' Mr. Hyman wrote in a recent article. "As a result, since many teachers were themselves paddled or witnessed paddling, they consider it standard operating procedure.''
In Ohio, where a proposed statewide ban against corporal punishment is currently pending and a number of school districts are seeking to outlaw the practice on their own, anti-corporal-punishment advocates said educators have proved to be some of their strongest opponents.
The Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, for example, while not opposing outright that school district's new ban on paddling, has argued for a slower, more cautious approach to instituting it.
"We were saying, 'we can live without corporal punishment, but you'd better be damn sure to put some alternatives in place and fund them,''' said Tom Mooney, president of the union local. "We've got an addiction in a sense to corporal punishment in this district and it's going to have to be a carefully planned withdrawal, which it hasn't been so far.''
The state's largest teachers' union, the Ohio Education Association, is fighting the proposed statewide ban on corporal punishment on the ground that use of the practice could serve as a bargaining chip in contract negotiations with local school districts.
"To me,'' said Mr. Fathman of the National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment in Schools, "that amounts to holding my kids hostage.''
Mr. Fathman, who also spearheads efforts in Ohio to outlaw corporal punishment, speaks from experience.
He said school officials in Marysville, Ohio, paddled his daughter in 1st grade after she failed to follow written directions on a reading worksheet.
The directions instructed the children to circle the words on the sheet that sounded alike. Instead, Nicole Fathman underlined the words. She was paddled along with four other children who had made similar errors, such as forgetting to put their names at the top of the paper or skipping several of the items on the worksheet.
"We found her crying in bed at 10 o'clock at night and she had been too ashamed to tell us why,'' he said.
Mr. Fathman said his efforts at the time to have the teacher reprimanded or convince the Marysville school board to ban paddling went nowhere.
"I didn't know how entrenched corporal punishment was in the minds of educators in Ohio schools,'' he said.
Nicole Fathman's experiences with corporal punishment may be typical in one respect, national experts say.
According to Mr. Hyman, most young children are paddled, as Nicole was, for relatively minor misbehaviors--talking in class, failing to do homework, and giggling.
Other research conducted over the years through Mr. Hyman's center has shown that minority students, particularly males, are up to four times more likely to be paddled than their white classmates. And special-education students are the most frequent candidates of all for a paddling.
"We once thought it was racial but it's not,'' said Mr. Hyman. "The best predictor of who is going to get abused is socioeconomic and a greater percentage of black kids are going to be poor.''
"So, when you've got kids who themselves have problems at home, and in school they're going to have problems, to hit them more creates a cyclical effect,'' he said.
Beyond the physical pain of the punishment, Mr. Hyman said such disciplining can produce long-term psychological trauma in children.
In recent studies, Mr. Hyman describes what he calls "educator-induced post-traumatic stress disorder'' in children who have been physically or verbally abused in schools.
The disorder, which Mr. Hyman likens to a similar condition in Vietnam veterans, can be characterized in children by nightmares, bed-wetting, changes in personality, avoidance of school, some type of re-experiencing of the trauma, aggressive acting out, stomachaches, headaches, and a variety of other symptoms.
"You have to remember that the abuse occurs in a place where kids have to keep returning day after day,'' he said. "It's done by a trusted care-giver and the community supports the idea.''
'Spare the Rod'
In a number of other states, opposition to corporal-punishment bans has come not from educators but from fundamentalist Christians who take literally Solomon's Biblical admonition: "spare the rod, spoil the child.''
"I think there's a vast difference between child abuse and properly administered corporal punishment,'' said Marvin Munyon, president of the Wisconsin Association of Christian Schools and an opponent of legislative efforts to ban corporal punishment in his state.
"One of the biggest abuses of children today is raising them without discipline,'' he said. "And I have a real problem with the state telling Christian schools--and these are schools where discipline is part of the total curriculum--that 'we're going to dictate part of your curriculum.'''
Mr. Munyon represents only 32 Christian schools attended by 2,500 children. Much larger organizations representing the state's Lutheran and Roman Catholic schools favored the ban against school paddling.
Yet the outspoken educator succeeded in convincing Wisconsin lawmakers to amend private schools out of the final bill to outlaw school paddling.
"While they are a small minority, they are a vocal minority,'' said state Senator Joseph Czarnezki, a Democrat from Milwaukee and sponsor of the ban.
More Debate Predicted
Advocates on both sides of the argument in that state say their battles are far from over.
Mr. Czarnezki said he planned to introduce another bill next session that would expand the paddling ban to private schools.
Mr. Munyon has said he will fight it.
The issue is also expected to surface again in legislatures in Ohio, Indiana, North Dakota, Iowa, Washington, and Kentucky, according to a survey compiled by End Violence Against the Next Generation, Inc.
And the U.S. Supreme Court may yet be faced with another corporal-punishment case.
That case involves two kindergarten girls from Tyler, Tex., who were each paddled five times with a wooden board for "snickering'' in the hallway. The parents of Crystal Cunningham and Ashley Johnson claim that their daughters suffered severe black and blue marks and psychological trauma as a result of the experience.
"Crystal has been so upset I've had to hold her and go to sleep with her every night,'' said the girl's mother, Ruby Cunningham.
The lawsuit is currently on file in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans--one of the few circuits that has not yet established the right of parents to sue, as Mr. Garcia did, over excessive corporal punishment.
That conflict between the Fifth Circuit and other appellate circuits increases the likelihood that the High Court will take up the matter in the event that the Fifth Circuit turns down the case or rules against the plaintiffs, according to lawyers for the families.
Whatever the outcome, such cases--as well as legislative efforts in a number of states--are being closely watched by the anti-corporal-punishment movement. Those advocates say they hope to equal or better the string of successes they experienced this year.
"It's not a question of if we get rid of corporal punishment,'' predicted Mr. Fathman of Ohio. "It's a question of when we do.''