Read an Excerpt
Physical Maltreatment in the Classroom
Whack! Smack! The long arcing swing of the paddle ended abruptly against her behind. She leaned over with both hands tightly gripping the edge of the counter. Her pants offered little protection from the earnest efforts of the man with broad shoulders and powerful arms. Her eyes were filled with tears as she cried in anger and outrage.
In her seventeen years she had never experienced such excruciating pain. Unbeknownst to her and in reaction to the trauma, her uterus began to contract with increasing force as the blows struck her buttocks. The paddling occurred during normal menstruation and she would later need medication to stem the heavy menstrual hemorrhaging.
The short break since the last two swats offered little relief from the mounting pain. The cries of the other girls who were present and the stone-faced demeanor of the powerful disciplinarian increased her feelings of outrage. The situation was hardly relieved by what seemed like gallows humor from the other man who entered the scene. Through her tears she heard him giggle and say, "Save one for me." He later denied this, but then, it is easier to believe the master than the victim whose perceptions are distorted by pain. He certainly did not object to what was happening.
Although she was a physically and emotionally mature seventeen-year-old, Shelly Gaspersohn could only think, "I want my mother." She ruefully remembered that her parents had warned her not to allow herself to be degraded. Her laterdescriptions of the incident were similar to those of rape victims. In describing this experience, which occurred on December 1, 1982, Shelly said, "I felt humiliated and violated. That and the pain caused me to start to cry. I never thought anything could hurt so much." And her educational experience was not unique. Since then, I have heard unceasing litanies about tears and humiliation caused by the "board of education."
Let us fast-forward to a recent and quite similar situation. On January 31, 1997, seventeen-year-old Bria Rose was bent over as the powerful, large man administered one smashing blow with a paddle to her behind. The meeting of the wooden paddle and her unprotected flesh resulted in a smack so loud that it was heard through a closed door. The force of the blow caused Bria to lose her grip on the desk and fall against it. An adult woman stood by to witness this act of what many would consider sadistic, sexual savagery.
The smack caused Bria to become overwhelmed by pain, tears, shame, and humiliation. The resulting bruises were still visible at the end of two weeks. Following the paddling, Bria developed unscheduled menstrual bleeding that lasted for twenty days. Her gynecologist told her that she might have internal damage to her reproductive system. The single powerful swing of a paddle, she tearfully recounted, was "no doubt in my mind whatsoever, about the worst experience in my life."
Now before we go any further, we want to say that we are not writing this book for aficionados of sadomasochistic sexual practices. While some might get their jollies from reading about the experiences of Shelly and Bria, we can assure you that those experiences were not jolly for the two young women. Neither girl's life experiences had prepared her to be beaten by a trusted and respected male caregiver. Both the paddlers were admired coaches. Shelly's was coach Glenn Varney, former disciplinarian at Dunn High School in Harnett County, North Carolina. The witness was Vice-Principal Roger Lee McKoy.
What was Shelly's horrendous offense? Before I answer that question, let me give you a little background. Shelly was an honor student in her senior year. She had no record of disciplinary infractions. Rather, she was a considerate, well-behaved, deeply religious young woman. She was an accomplished flutist and a member of the all-state band who enjoyed school. She was hardly someone who would require the infamous "last resort" that many educators claim is necessary to maintain law and order in the schools. Now, what horrible act did Shelly perpetrate?
Shelly's indiscretion, common to seniors, was playing hooky and constituted the only recorded rebellious act of her school career. How was it that Shelly, a girl who never broke school rules, committed this sin worthy of a flogging? At the urging of her close friend, Renee Byum, the two skipped classes and spent the day driving around looking for Renee's boyfriend. Not being accomplished truants, both were caught.
The girls were offered the choice of corporal punishment or a five-day in-school suspension (ISS). In-school suspension at Dunn High School meant sitting with other punishees all day in a monitored room. Theoretically, teachers from all classes provide assignments for each day. Like many similar programs, teacher cooperation in providing schoolwork is inconsistent. Often students are left with long periods of idle time because of no work assignments.
Shelly and Renee accepted the ISS, partly because the cruel reputation of the disciplinarian, Glenn Varney, the strapping, paddleswinging assistant principal and football coach, preceded him. After several days of in-school suspension, Shelly became worried about keeping up with her pre-calculus class as she was not being supplied with assignments. According to school policy, a student could volunteer for three licks with the paddle for each day of parole from ISS. Shelly, Renee, and some other ISS students volunteered to take their licks from Varney in order to return to regular class. The result was the incident already described.
But surely, Shelly's minor offense (committed in the rural South), the aberrant punishment, and the subsequent events could not possibly be mirrored fifteen years later in a Northern state. Wrong!
As you will read a little later, Shelly's litigation and appeals are a matter of documented history. Bria's complaint was only filed three months before this book was begun. Therefore, I must be careful not to violate the rights of the various litigants as I describe her case.
Bria alleges that preceding the paddling, a former best friend had been verbally harassing her for about one month, possibly over issues of jealousy and competitiveness. Bria had been taught to "turn the other cheek" so she tried to ignore the insults and negative statements. On January 31, 1997, she was hit by the backpack of her ex-friend, who was walking past her. Bria, who believed that this act was done purposefully, exclaimed, "Excuse me!" They exchanged words and her former friend left for the parking lot.
As soon as Bria left the building she was again confronted and was allegedly called a "bitch." Bria, who reports that she had never before struck anyone or been in a fight, pushed her ex-friend.
The altercation between the two girls was interdicted by Mr. Hale, assistant principal and Bria's former soccer coach at South Webster High School. Similar to Shelly's case, Bria was offered the choice of a paddling or a three-day suspension. She was given the weekend to make a decision. In her mind there was no choice. She felt that, because of academic blocking schedules and her participation on the school basketball team, she would miss too much work and let the team down if she accepted the suspension. She also reasoned that since Mr. Hale was a trusted caregiver, and considering that this was a "first offense," he certainly would not hit her enough to cause any real damage.
Unlike Shelly's, Bria's pain was witnessed by a female, Mrs. Hickman, rather than a male teacher. It is somewhat surprising that a professional woman would countenance discipline directed at the behind of a sexually mature female. Like Shelly, Bria had no life experiences that prepared her to be beaten by a male caregivera formerly admired and respected coachwhile being forced to bend over in a passive position and offer her buttocks as a target for the infliction of pain. Bria, a model student, a child who strove to please adults and authority figures and to make her parents proud, a child who had never been in any school trouble, suddenly felt transformed into one of the "bad kids." Associated with this, she experienced a considerable amount of physical pain.
One would wonder what we have learned about child abuse in the fifteen years since Shelly Gaspersohn was legally and brutally battered by a school official. Obviously Mr. Hale and Mrs. Hickman had not learned much. Nor had Mr. Paul White, the superintendent, and the school board of Bloom-Vernon School District.
As the tale unfolds, it is clear that the majority of legislators in those twenty-three states where student paddling is still legal have learned nothing. For students in these states, any reasonable definition of child abuse stops at the schoolhouse door. Yet advocacy groups have worked hard in almost every state to inform legislators about the problem of allowing educators to smack students. We hope that the story of Shelly (which received national attention in the 1980s), coupled with the contemporary story of Bria, will convince enough parents, educators, and policymakers to stop the continuing abuse.
These two cases tell a story that we have heard too many times. The ages of students, the resources of parents, and the locations may be different. But the scenarios are remarkably similar and attest to the stupidity, arrogance, and outright malice that school and public officials can demonstrate when confronted by parents who want justice for their own children and protection for others. Let us continue to consider the similarity between the two cases.
Bruised Behinds and Battered Minds
Both the Gaspersohns and the Roses were quickly taught about the ability of school officials to trivialize a family disaster. In over twenty years of experience with these types of cases, I am still amazed by reports of many school officials' reactions. They are adroit at trivializing, denying, lying, evading, and stonewalling when parents have legitimate complaints about physical and emotional damage done to their children in the name of discipline.
When Shelly arrived home after the beating, her mother was shocked and horrified by the large welts on Shelly's buttocks. An examining physician became so enraged that he filed child abuse charges against Coach Varney. In the vast majority of states at that time, teachers were immune to child abuse charges. Of course, if Shelly's parents had administered the beating they could have been arrested.
Complaints by the Gaspersohns to the principal, superintendent, and school board fell on deaf and hostile ears. Despite the fact that the beating left bruises for three weeks and caused menstrual hemorrhaging and long-lasting emotional trauma, the school officials trivialized the whole event.
Unlike the majority of brutalized students, who are almost always from poor or working-class families, Shelly Gaspersohn had parents with the resources to hire an attorney. Research and personal experience indicate that parents without financial resources are further victimized and bullied into submission by the power of school authorities. The Gaspersohns hired Renny Deese, an experienced lawyer devoted to civil rights issues, and filed suit against the school and Glenn Varney.
A similar scene ensued when Bria arrived home. Seeing Bria's injuries, her mother was also horrified. Mrs. Rose took her bruised daughter to the local urgent care center. Like Shelly, Bria was prescribed a painkiller to help her to deal with the bruises, which lasted about two weeks. Unfortunately, Motrin did not stop the unscheduled menstrual bleeding, which lasted for twenty days following the paddling. Bria went to a gynecologist who, she reports, indicated that she might have some internal damage. The examining physician followed standard protocols when abuse is suspected. He advised Bria's parents to report the incident to an attorney.
Like the Gaspersohns' complaint, the Roses' complaint to various authorities was not taken seriously. Mrs. Rose expressed incredulity that school officials could get away with what would be a criminal act if perpetrated by a parent or other caregiver. She was further disturbed when she was not "allowed" to file criminal charges with law enforcement officials.
But the Roses found, as others in rural, conservative communities have discovered, that the very law enforcement and child abuse authorities who should protect children's rights are reluctant to override the judgments of school authorities. Mrs. Rose alleged that the investigator from Scioto County Children's Services found her complaints "unsubstantiated." She was allegedly told by the investigator that he supported paddling in schools and if "they did more of it the kids would be better."
Like Mrs. Gaspersohn, Mrs. Rose began to research the issue of corporal punishment in her state schools. She discovered that her district reported the most paddlings in the state and that an alleged survey revealed that it is supported by the community and at least 81 percent of the students. She was allegedly told by the superintendent, "No judge or jury in America would convict the teacher for this paddling."
In neither of the two cases did the school officials realize the extent to which their behavior brought out and rallied protective parental instincts. In both cases the mothers were extraordinarily courageous and persistent in their struggles for justice for their children and others who might be similarly victimized.
The Roses were fortunate, as were the Gaspersohns, to find an attorney more devoted to civil liberties and children's rights than to big bucks. Most lawyers know that, even in the best of situations, they are not going to profit much in these types of cases. Attorney Phyllis Schiff was outraged by the physical and emotional abuses Bria suffered.
JusticeNorth Carolina Style
The Gaspersohns had their day in court, they had their appeals, and they learned some lessons about children's rights and justice for schoolchildren that have helped future generations. Marlene Gaspersohn became a vociferous advocate against paddling. Her message has spread through her activities in the Lutheran Church, letters to politicians, television appearances, and testimony in Congress. The saga of her persistent but failed litigation is described in detail in Reading, Writing, and the Hickory Stick and will be reviewed here briefly.
There were two claims. The first was that "Glenn Varney's violent and forceful striking of the plaintiff ... required [her] ... to undergo medical treatment, limit her activities and general enjoyment of life." Compensatory damages of $5,000 were requested. In retrospect, that was a small sum, considering the effect of the paddling on Shelly's life.
The second was that Glenn Varney willfully and maliciously struck Shelly, with the approval of the Harnett County School Board. Therefore, $50,000 in punitive damages was claimed.
The trial took place on December 12, 1983, before Judge James Pou Bailey. I was there because I had conducted an extensive psychological evaluation of Shelly and was to serve as an expert witness. The setting and Judge Bailey fulfilled every stereotype that one might associate with rural justice. I had a sense of foreboding when I learned that the examining physician was not allowed to testify that he had filed child abuse charges and that other testimony was restricted and distorted by the judge when he charged the jury.
After three days of testimony, in just fifteen minutes, twelve men and women of Harnett County, North Carolina, rendered a verdict of "not guilty." They decided that Coach Varney had not used unreasonable force. Their decision supports the justification that educators can beat and bruise students' behinds as long as it is done in the name of discipline.
The jury, mirroring a popular belief, most likely were expressing the conviction, "I was spanked and paddled as a kid and I turned out OK." If you can't take a little humiliation, how can you deal with the real world?
How many times have I heard the same old rationalizations? Some members of the jury may have been shocked by Shelly's beating. They may have thought about what they would have done if their physically mature young daughter suffered the same fate. Yet they may have felt constrained by North Carolina law in determining what is reasonable when a grown man hits a young woman with a wooden paddle and by Judge Bailey's charge. After all, the judiciary in this case appeared stuck in nineteenth-century thinking. Here are the two cases they used as precedents.
In the 1837 decision in State v. Pendergast, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the whipping of a six- or seven-year-old girl can leave bruises and can be severe up to the point of causing "long lasting mischief." A stipulation was that the beating must be inflicted "honestly in the performance of duty."
To show that they were more forward thinking than the judges in 1837, the contemporary Supreme Court of North Carolina took a big leap into the twentieth century. However, in their misguided and unaccustomed efforts at progressive thinking regarding children's rights, they were only able to reach forward to 1904 and the decision in Drum v. Miller.
In Drum v. Miller, a child received serious injury as a result of his teacher throwing a pencil that struck the child's eye. In that case the court exonerated the teacher since the act was "not prompted by malice."
In contemporary education, most professionals recognize that students are harmed by discipline that inflicts severe physical or emotional pain. Even if one is not aware of the research and literature on school discipline, common sense and usual practice should dictate the stupidity of forcefully hitting an adolescent girl with a wooden paddle. Either the paddler is too dumb to know better or is prompted by maliciousness. Guilty in either case!
It may have been too much to expect citizens and the judiciary to challenge a legal interpretation of "reasonable force" based on knowledge and beliefs about children and education that were over a century old. Those were times when child, wife, and racial abuses were common and accepted. When I faced that jury in Harnett County, I assumed that they knew at least something about what we have learned in this second part of the twentieth century about developmental psychology, pediatric medicine, education, and children's rights. I was wrong!
Take one example of their distorted thinking. The school board, the judge, and the North Carolina Supreme Court made a big issue of the fact the Shelly "asked" for the beating. It is clear that she had no way of knowing how severely she would be hit for this very first disciplinary offense in her school career. The school's own rules indicated that a variety of punishments were available. It was not difficult to surmise that Shelly was not a hard-core delinquent. After all, she asked to be paddled so that she could quickly get back to her schoolwork, not to return to a life of crime.
Well, the Gaspersohns had their day in court and went as far as they could in appeals. It wasn't until I did the research for Reading, Writing, and the Hickory Stick that I realized what they were up against. Basically, they tried to take on a typical rural oligarchy. Lined up against them were the beliefs and traditions of a tightly knit right-wing political establishment rooted in fundamentalist, Southern Baptist doctrines.
Judge Bailey belonged to a group of far-right political operatives. His buddies from his "good old boy" network included Hoover Adams, publisher of the avowedly right-wing Dunn Daily Record, Thomas Ellis, a wealthy right-wing scion, and Senator Jesse Helms. In fact, Helms, in his first column as a writer for the Tar Heel Banker, house organ of the North Carolina Banker's Association, touted his friend Pou Bailey. I was familiar with the social agenda of such staunch supporters of far-right political and religious operatives. I had little faith that they would stray far from the often repeated misquote from the Bible, "spare the rod and spoil the child."
Following the trial, one of Shelly's married sisters, in an unrelated event, complained about long-standing religious classes taught in the Dunn public schools. While the school's own attorney ruled that the classes were unconstitutional, Hoover Adams's paper led a campaign against canceling the religion classes. Media hostility against the Gaspersohns and threats against their personal safety caused them to give up their manufacturing business and leave Dunn.
Shelly gave up any thought of teaching and studied electrical engineering. She later started a business and became a mother. However, her love of children eventually emerged as a dominant force in her life. She now teaches mathematics in public school. According to her mother, Shelly continues to experience stress whenever she thinks about that beating by Coach Varney sixteen years ago.
Is Paddling of Adolescents' Buttocks Sexual Harassment?
Since the predation of Coach Varney in rural North Carolina, there have been some changes in the way Americans think about females' bodies. Congress has passed laws forbidding sexual harassment. The infamous Anita Hill hearings sensitized Americans to the issue. The American Association of University Women published a landmark study in 1993. This study, which will be described in Chapter Five, alerted the public to the negative emotional impact of all types of unwanted sexual behaviors. Most people consider buttocks to be in the domain of sexuality, though this probably does not include the somewhat questionable penchant of many male athletes to publicly pat their buddies' behinds. However, sexual harassment does encompass unwanted touching, grabbing, and groping students' derrieres.
When the Rose family called me and detailed the events, I could not help but think about Shelly's case and the change in the law regarding sexual harassment since 1982. Bria's trauma, like Shelly's, was similar to that of a rape victim. The major difference is that Bria was assaulted after the passage of Title IX. When I talked to Phyllis Schiff, Bria's attorney, it was difficult to contain my excitement. Could this be the case that would end all paddling of female students? Then, if that occurred, would it not be sexual discrimination to paddle only males? Ideally, this case would go to trial and Bria would win.
Bria's claim, unlike Shelly's, was filed in federal court. This is very important because it removed jurisdiction from the local oligarchy. Among the twelve charges is that a paddle in the hands of Coach Hale was a "deadly weapon" as defined by Ohio law. Under Title IX, Bria charges that Mr. Hale and the Bloom-Vernon Local (BVL) School District permitted and tolerated "illegal and/or inappropriate relationships between male BVL employees and female BVL students [thereby creating] ... an offensive, sexist, hostile atmosphere."
The school board asked the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio to throw out the case. On March 9, 1999, Judge Susan Dlott agreed with the school board that a paddling that caused bruising and menstrual hemorrhaging was not brutal, inhumane, or sadistic and, therefore, was not at a level sufficient to be considered a breach of Bria's constitutional rights. The judge ignored the evidence of emotional injury and supported the decision by citing cases of brutal beatings that did not "shock the conscience" of federal judges in other districts. Judge Dlott saw no connection between the paddling of an adolescent female by a male educator and sexual harassment as defined in federal statutes. She based her decision in part on the flawed Ingraham v. Wright Supreme Court decision which we will discuss later.
The Roses are infuriated but still committed to protecting other students. Without people like the Roses, students throughout the country would not have a chance. Their efforts have resulted directly or indirectly in the banning of corporal punishment in two local school districts. The publicity surrounding the case and the family's support of other victims resulted in Mrs. Rose receiving the Child Advocate of the Year Award from the Ohio Center for Effective Discipline.
Exactly What Is Corporal Punishment?
Most dictionaries tell us that corporal punishment is the purposeful infliction of pain or confinement as a penalty for an offense. At home, most corporal punishment is done by spanking buttocks with an open hand. Other popular pain-infliction techniques used by parents include, in descending order of frequency, slapping, hair and ear pulling, punching, pinching, whipping, arm twisting, shaking, and kicking. Since educators were once children, they tend to model their spanking experiences at home when they enter the school. Educators are assumed by training to be more learned than the average parent. Years ago educators concluded that it made no sense to hurt their hands when forcefully striking the behinds of their errant students. Contemporary educators almost always use wooden paddles.
For the last twenty-two years I have tracked cases from all over the country and never cease to be amazed by the variety of ways in which schoolchildren can be hurt. For instance, some educators prefer the flexibility and ease of swatting behinds with leather. Rather than swatting with wooden paddles, some Oklahoma teachers have used a leather weapon shaped like the sole of a size 12 or 13 cowboy boot.
Other weapons documented at the NCSCPA include rubber hoses, leather straps and belts, switches, sticks, rods, ropes, straight pins, plastic baseball bats, and arrows. Punching, slapping, kicking, and shaking are popular forms of "getting children's attention." A favorite of coaches seems to be ramming students up against lockers. If lockers aren't available, any convenient wall will do.
Ramming students against a wall was once institutionalized by the Madison Valley Schools in Montana. Apparently some school staff believed that they could not educate their students without "racking" them. One particular teacher, Arthur Hartman, had developed racking to a fine art. It was not until a colleague and I evaluated the posttraumatic symptoms of six of Hartman's victims that we discovered that racking consists of picking students up by their necks and shaking them. In some cases racking was enhanced and extended by holding the student up against the wall to enhance the effects of mild strangulation. Eileen and Michael White, both veterinarians, had no children of their own in the school, but they were so enraged by this discipline-by-throttling philosophy that they organized the parents of the victims. Because of their empathy for the children and their fear for their children not yet in school in Ennis, Montana, they expended their own time and resources to organize litigation against the school district. In addition, they lobbied the state legislature and helped ban any type of corporal punishment in Montana schools.
Some teachers have gone well beyond the buttocks to creatively inflict pain. Not to be outdone by the stars of cable television's Food Channel, some educators in the Midwest injected hot Tabasco sauce in the mouths of errant students. Some of the children suffered the additional pain caused by having it smeared on their faces. Children with disabilities appear to be particularly vulnerable to abuse. For instance, a twelve-year-old in a special education class claimed that his teacher and her aide banged students' heads into their desks, twisted their arms, and even tried a little strangulation as punishment.
The dictionary definition at the beginning of this section does not tell the whole story. For instance, if one sticks by the provision that corporal punishment involves the purposeful infliction of pain, this could offer an escape from prosecution when a child is seriously damaged or even killed. I was involved in a case in which a student had been blowing spit bubbles in the air. The teacher claimed that this "disgusting, unsanitary act" caused her to "instinctively" smack him on mouth. The bleeding, pain, and emotional trauma so outraged the parents that they sued the school.
The teacher's defense was based, in part, on school board regulations that defined corporal punishment as an "intentional" act. She stated that she hadn't intended to hit the child, and therefore her instinctive act had not violated the school board sanctions. Rather than face the plaintiffs in court, the school board settled the case and removed the term intentional from the definition. However, in other cases, parents have lost in litigation when educators have successfully pleaded that they did not intend to cause serious harm.
We believe that corporal punishment in the schools includes any disciplinary procedure intended to cause physical pain. This can include forcing ingestion of noxious foods as mentioned earlier, preventing children from going to the bathroom, forcing children to assume uncomfortable postures for extended periods or to spend long durations in a time-out chair or confined space, and imposing painful physical drills. We believe it is important to broadly define corporal punishment to make the public and policymakers aware of the variety and seriousness of legalized pain-inflicting disciplinary procedures. Any infliction of pain, especially when carried to extremes or when the student has problematic medical conditions, can cause serious injury or even death.
For instance, teacher Craig Gordon claimed that his discipline of Michael Waechter, an orthopedically handicapped thirteen-year-old student, was not intended to cause the child's death. School authorities had been notified of Michael's heart problem, and Michael's parents claim that his teacher was also informed. According to a report in the Detroit News, as the students were lining up on the playground, Michael and another boy were lagging behind. "The two of them were tusslingnot fighting" reported the school superintendent. For this horrendous offense, Gordon ordered the two boys to do a "gut run," which was a 320-yard disciplinary sprint. After twenty feet, Michael dropped dead.
There is a phenomenon that I call the "activity punishment continuum." At the active end are various drills, such as the "gut run" and push-ups. At the fixed end of the continuum are activities that force students to stay in one place for long periods. An angry parent from Wisconsin called me to complain about her child's teacher, who drew a circle on the blackboard which was a few inches above the tip the student's nose. She then made the child stand on tippy-toe and place his nose in the middle of the circle. While some of the teacher's victims might have been runners who relished long stretching exercises, it is doubtful that any trainer would agree with the motivation of the teacher, the duration of the exercise, or the painful consequences, which include painful muscle spasms. Not quite as exotic as this exercise is the much used and abused behavioral technique of time out.
Terrible Time Out: A Special Case of Corporal Punishment
Time out, which we call deprivation punishment, is different from a straightforward punishment. Instead of direct retribution, time out works by removing the child from a positive situation. If students enjoy being in the classroom, time out increases the probability that they will want to act appropriately when returned to that setting. We do not know of any research about the frequency of use of time outs by teachers, but this popular disciplinary technique has certainly had an impact on parents.
A 1992 poll showed that 38 percent of parents responded that they used time out and preferred it to spanking. This is an 18 percent increase over a similar poll in 1962. Unfortunately, like any punishment, this procedure is often overused.
Returning to the scientific definitionthe one under which punishment can be justified as a constructive acta punishment is a procedure that decreases the chance that a misbehavior will recur. So if a teacher repeatedly uses time out with the same child and the misbehavior does not stop, thenby definitionthe procedure was not punishing. Further, there is little indication that increasing the duration of time out beyond very narrow limits increases its effectivenessit just gets the child out of the way and increases the satisfaction of the person inflicting the penalty. Most of the abuses that I have dealt with have occurred when teachers have placed students for many hours in storerooms, closets, and specially designed boxes. In some cases, children have been tied to time-out chairs for long periods.
Experts generally agree that time out should not be more minutes than the child's age. Also, it should be used in conjunction with positive reinforcement programs. While the research on effectiveness shows that the correct duration is best determined by what works, duration should be dictated by common sense. If time out does not work after repeated use, it is clear that it is not an effective punishment and should be stopped.
Here is a somewhat bizarre case of in which paddling and time out were served up as a punishment cocktail. It illustrates how the lure of punishment can distort reason for professionals who should know better. Shirley, a high-achieving, happy, outgoing first grader, became aware of some disturbing marital conflicts between her parents. Because of her ruminations about fear of divorce, Shirley started to sob uncontrollably one day in class.
Shirley's teacher took her to the principal, who came up with a brilliant solution. "Bend over and touch your toes," said the principal, "I have a perfect way to stop your crying." When Shirley responded as requested, she found that a paddle on the behind was the proposed solution. Of course, this remedy only resulted in an increased flow of tears.
The next solution was even more brilliant. Shirley was escorted to a clothes closet across from the nurse's office. The collective wisdom of the principal and the nurse resulted in sitting Shirley on a stool in the closet. Shirley was still crying as the nurse turned off the light and closed the closet door. When this didn't stop the crying, the nurse decided on a more direct approachshe stuck a sock in Shirley's mouth to muffle the crying!
Shirley's mother was incredulous that this could happen in school. She was outraged that Shirley was so traumatized by the experience and that her daughter developed many stress symptoms, including fear of returning to school.
Going to the Bathroom: Right or Privilege?
Did you know that teachers are not supposed to leave their classrooms without a legally designated adult in charge? Now we are not saying that they always follow the rules, especially if they have painful urgency to go to the bathroom. But we know of teachers with urinary infections, spastic colons, and other conditions who have had to take work leaves because they could not remain in the classroom for sufficient periods. Despite our sympathy for teachers, we find it difficult to understand why so many of them are not empathetic to similar physical needs of students.
We believe a type of corporal punishment occurs when teachers forbid bathroom privileges to students who are in acute pain because of the need to go. The problem is often compounded when the student feels it necessary to publicly beg the teacher to go, is forced to run out of the class without permission, or has an accident. We know that some students request to go to the bathroom to escape from the class, to meet a friend, or to have a smoke. We also know that unsupervised bathrooms can be vandalized by angry students. However, as most principals know, there are relatively simple solutions to these problems, including keeping track of who goes to the bathroom and how much time they spend there.
Many people can recall at least one incident in their school careers when they or a close friend was punished by denial of an urgent request to go to the bathroom. Many of the cases we have heard were of students who did not have records of misbehavior. Refusals are often based on a teacher's reflexive need to refuse bathroom privileges except at assigned times. Here are just a few examples of the problem culled from our research on worst school experiences. Interestingly, only females reported worst school experiences in this category.
My first bad experience in school was in kindergarten. The bathroom was located inside the classroom but you still had to raise your hand to use it. I sat with my hand raised for a long period of time and wet my pants. I ended up sitting on a radiator for my underclothes to dry. This experience was a personal embarrassment for many years.
My worst school experience was when I was in fourth grade and I had to go to the bathroom. Prior to this, other students who were allowed to go to the bathroom were not returning to class. When I needed to go to have a bowel movement, the teacher would not let me go because she thought I would not come back. The pain got so unbearable that I could not hold it in any longer and went in my pants.
When I was in third grade, someone had a bowel movement in their pants. The teacher asked who did it and no one answered. She made us line up, bend over and she stuck her nose right up to our buttocks to smell who did it. I felt so humiliated. This incident damaged my sense of privacy, my respect for the teacher, and instilled in me a fear that sooner or later another teacher would do this to me or my class.
We have documented cases where children took notes from their physicians to school requesting that they be permitted to go to the bathroom when required. In one case, despite the child's urinary infection, her third-grade teacher insisted that she could only go to the bathroom at the assigned times. The child was kept home from school until the infection disappeared.
We continually hear examples of this particular type of painful punishment. We believe that the problem is in part caused by administrative rigidity resulting from the need for the orderly and predictable use of bathrooms so that no students appear unescorted in the hallways. However, this is a poor reason to cause children pain and embarrassment. While students and parents frequently complain to school authorities, at least one student took his case to the Supreme Court.
Jerry Boyett, a senior in Luverne High School in Crenshaw County, Alabama, was refused permission to go to the bathroom. He was suffering from diarrhea, but the teacher, Lalar Tomberlin, indicated that she saw no signs of distress. Boyett claimed that students have a constitutional right to use the bathroom when needed. His attorney claimed that this right is based on liberty interest and bodily integrity. Boyett's claim was denied by three Alabama courts. In 1997, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, thereby denying students the legal right to go to the bathroom, even when in dire pain.
The Pedagogy of Pain
As part of ongoing research at the NCSCPA we have documented the pedagogy of pain. In one particularly interesting study we asked adults to describe their worst school experiences when they were students. Here are some selected anecdotes to demonstrate how heads were as often targets as were behinds.
My teacher used to physically punish the boys by holding and slamming their heads against walls. He also seemed to like making the whole class exercise in the winter with no jackets for entire recess as punishment, etc. He was very sarcastic, always putting us down, yelling, demeaning.
I was waiting in line at lavatory to go in a stall when two girls came out at the same time. I was second in line and went into second stall. When I came out, the nun was waiting for me. Apparently the girl behind me claimed I had cut in front of her. The nun proceeded to yell and to take my head and bang it into the tiled wall. Despite what I had to say, she made me feel as if I was wrong and consequently felt embarrassed.
In second grade my teacher accused me of screaming out in the class. When I told her it wasn't me and the girl who had screamed admitted it was her, she still insisted that it was me and banged the side of my head into the chalkboard.
If a student did not know an answer or rustled a paper at the wrong time, he would be set upon by teacher. Ridicule and physical abuse were most often used by this teacher. Most distressing of all was when the teacher would rip a student out of his seat (for what appeared to be innocuous behavior) and smash his head against the blackboard. As a witness to this event, I would cover my eyes for fear of seeing blood and brains all over the blackboard.
In parochial school in the second grade I was bad in math. After receiving a "zero" on a test, the nun called me outside the classroom and proceeded to smack my head into the wall until I passed out.
In seventh grade, I had sprained my foot and was unable to participate in gym class. For some reason the gym teacher and I didn't click. When I had to sit on the outer wall of the gym and watch others, my sprained foot was lying across a boundary marker. The teacher kicked it to the other side of the line and made my foot worse.
A teacher took a book and slammed it on my sprained wrist just because I didn't know the answer to his questions.
In eleventh grade I stepped over a row of seats in the auditorium and was caught by the teacher. I was paddled on the stage in front of a hundred students. It hurt me more emotionally than physically.
When I was seventeen years old I was in class when I felt a very heavy menstrual flow. I asked several times to go to the bathroom until the teacher finally agreed to let me go. He seemed angry when I returned. He said I had been in the bathroom too long and he took me into the hallway. He pinned me up against the wall so that my feet did not touch the floor and screamed at me for what seemed to me like hours.
My parents were immigrants who had learned only enough English to enable them to become citizens. Because they spoke only Italian at home, I had trouble with English. My teacher slapped me in the face every day whenever I responded to her in Italian.
The nun in my third grade class was determined to improve my penmanship. Every time I wrote something messy, she slammed my knuckles with a five-foot metal ruler. It hurt bad. She also put grapefruit pits in anyone's shoes who wasn't standing up straight and used duct tape on their mouths for a whole day if they spoke out of turn.
These anecdotes were selected from hundreds that we have collected in our studies of peoples' worst school experiences. When the worst experience involved corporal punishment, adults often report vivid memories of the event and sometimes reexperience some of the emotional trauma. While most school guidelines for the use of corporal punishment suggest that it should be done in private, this is not always the case. In many cases, public smacking adds to the humiliation and embarrassment felt by the students. As is illustrated by the students with the sprained foot and sprained wrist, educators can target injured body parts for abuse. Sometimes the justification for smacking kids is bizarre, as is shown in the case of the student from the Italian-speaking home.
These cases demonstrate the insidious potential toxicity of any institution that empowers officials to inflict pain. That power is invariably abused. In the schools, the victims are children who have no right to due process or to parental oversight. Educators can, in the name of discipline and often for minor indiscretions, inflict punishments that have potential to cause lifelong trauma. This practice undermines the basic tenets of fairness and justice that are the underpinnings of our democracy. It gives the lie to the premise that the punishment should be justified by the nature of the crime.
Crime and Punishment in the Schoolhouse
One of the major defenses of corporal punishment is that it is a last resort. Now that term certainly has heavy-duty implications about the nature of student crime. To our minds, this argument is nothing more than an excuse to abuse students.
Get this picture. A poor, martyred teacher, struggling in the trenches, must each day face hordes of students, some who would be feared by Ghengis himself. In this power struggle, teachers can't allow chaos to reign. Supposedly, after teachers have used up their extensive armamentarium of tried-and-true disciplinary techniques and students still don't respond, swatting is the only solution. After all, a good whack is the only thing some kids understand. Right!
After hearing this argument over and over until I was sick of it, I decided to study the types of school crimes that call for the last resortrather than relying on the myths perpetrated by its supporters. None of the reports give credence to any of the arguments used by pro-paddlers. For instance, some of these studiesconducted over a twenty-year periodexamined press clippings of smacked and whacked students who claimed that they were injured by educators. Among other things, we wanted to see if these cases of injured children really reflected the last resort explanation.
Most cases involved teachers or principals, but others such as bus drivers, janitors, and even a school board member have gotten in their whacks. Now remember, these cases represent a tiny fraction of the potential pool of injured children, since the parents had to raise a big enough stink to interest the media. Most parents of injured children are emotionally unwilling or economically unable to take on the school board.
While the damages caused to the children ranged from severe bruises to internal injuries to death (three cases), over 80 percent of the offenses were nonviolent. Nonviolent misbehavior included talking out of turn, cursing, truancy, cigarette-related offenses, inadequate academic behavior (a kindergartner was injured for incorrectly pronouncing words during a phonics lesson), and staying in the bathroom too long. Violent infractions, by our definition, included fighting, throwing lethal objects, or engaging in potentially harmful pranks. Note that no case involved real violence. School discipline manuals do not recommend taking a paddle to the behinds of students who attack staff or peers with guns or knives. Whatever happened to the "make the punishment fit the crime" adage? So much for the last resort argument!
Is Corporal Punishment Abuse?
In recent years there has been a raging battle regarding the relationship between spanking and abuse. I present this fully in my book The Case Against Spanking (Jossey-Bass, 1997). Let me summarize the issue, since it is quite relevant to school paddling. Pro-spankers, fueled by vociferous support from the religious and political right, maintain that spanking is a God-given right and the responsibility of all parents. Since it is justified in the Bible and it is practiced by most American parents, it can't be considered abuse. Do-good liberals, "so-called" experts in parenting, and government officials have no business violating the sanctity of the home.
Most child abuse workers, professors, researchers, and child advocates claim that spanking, even when it consists of a few swats on the behind, is an act of violence and therefore abuse. When done with "weapons" such as belts, clothes hangers, and switches, swatting invariably leaves bruises and welts and therefore rises to the legal definition of abuse. Even when it does not do physical damage, it is considered subabusive because it is invariably done in anger, causes some pain, and often results in tears.
We propose a middle ground. Even though common spanking may not cause physical damage, it is abusive by intent. The purpose is to cause pain. We don't buy the argument that it is just a way to get children's attention. There are lots of other ways to get someone's attention.
Academics, pediatricians, and parenting experts who support spanking claim that it should be limited to two- to six-year-olds, never be done in anger, and should consist of two or three nondamaging swats by hand to the behind. All experts whom we know of with reasonable credentials consider the use of a wooden paddle or other weapon to be abusive. Except for self-proclaimed experts such as preachers, politicians, and parents from the far religious right, no experts who are pro-spankers (that we know of) support school paddling.
The real irony is that twenty-three states support the right of educators to legally abuse students. The bruises caused by paddlings would result in child abuse charges if caused by anyone other than a teacher! This has been supported in Georgia, for example, in a case against Berrien County School District. The Court of Appeals, considering pictures of the bruised and battered behind of Chris Mathis, decided that even though the bright red bruises revealed the outline of the paddle, it was not abuse.
Florida is a state not necessarily known for its abhorrence for corporal punishment. However, the Court of Appeals of Florida, First District, rendered an opinion that serves as an effective measure against pro-spanking educators. Several administrators were sued by the parents of paddled children who sustained bruises lasting more than a week. The administrators were shocked to discover that their actions qualified them for the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services Registry of Child Abusers. The court agreed with state officials that when bruises last six or seven days, abuse has occurred. While the court should be commended for protecting children's flesh, we would be happier if the time of healing were not used as a yardstick for determining abuse.