Advocacy Group Links 'Paddling' to Slavery
By Ginger Carter
The Exponent, Student Newspaper of University of Alabama in Huntsville, June 18, 2004

When the Faculty Senate of UA Tuscaloosa recently adopted the "Resolution Acknowledging and Apologizing for the History of Slavery at The University of Alabama" (April 20, 2004), they must have anticipated that the reactions might be many and varied. One of the more interesting responses to the UA apology may be found on the website of the California-based organization Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education (PTAVE), where advocates link the contemporary 'paddling' of children to brutal corporal punishment practices instigated during slavery.

An excerpt on the website from a work titled "The History of Corporal Punishment" (1938), by George Ryley Scott, suggests that the practice of 'paddling' was invented during slavery in an effort to maximize punitive effectiveness without leaving permanent evidence of brutality on the bodies of slaves, thereby diminishing their resale value. In a recent press release, PTAVE calls upon The University of Alabama to make the next step in its efforts to deal with the historical injustices of slavery by "act[ing] now to promote a ban against the use of slavery-derived whippings and paddlings in the so-called 'discipline' of children by their teachers and principals, [especially since] African American schoolchildren receive a disproportionately high percentage of all school paddlings."

Also included on the PTAVE website is a reproduction of S.R. 153, a Joint Resolution adopted by the 39th Congress (1866), to outlaw "the practice of inflicting corporal punishment for offences against laws and municipal regulations [since this] is barbarous in character and degrading in influence." The wording of the Resolution seems to suggest that the recently-freed former slaves may have been particularly susceptible to victimization by these types of punishments during the chaotic and volatile post-Civil War period in the South.

Mr. Jordan Riak is the Executive Director of PTAVE. In 1985, he drafted California Assembly Bill 1617, which became state law in 1987, protecting all children enrolled in California public schools from the practice of 'paddling.' He had previous experience as an anti-violence activist in New South Wales, Australia, where his work resulted in the abolition of the practice of caning public school children. Riak appears frequently on television and radio as an advocate for non-punitive parenting. He also does volunteer work with the Pre-Release Programs of the California State Prisons at Folsom and Solano.

Mr. Riak recently responded to questions in an interview with The Exponent:

Ginger Carter: What is the current status of individual U.S. states with regard to the practice of corporal punishment in public schools?

Jordan Riak: Twenty-two states currently permit corporal punishment of schoolchildren. Typically, state legislatures in paddling states defer to the local districts to set their own rules in this regard. Thus, they avoid taking sides on this most divisive of issues. Some school districts allow parents to sign a waiver that exempts their children from being beaten. This too is a mechanism for gracefully shifting responsibility downward. The net result is that educators and education policymakers can claim when they hit children, or authorize others to do it, that they are merely honoring parents' wishes and expectations.

And it follows that parents who smack their children at home can cite the example of educators who are, after all, trained professionals and certified by the state. Thus, each party absolves itself of wrongdoing with the tacit approval of the other, and children who are exposed to abuse at home can get a second dose of the same at school. Males generally, and African American males in particular, are targeted by paddlers at rates that are disproportionately higher than their numbers in the student population.

It seems to me that the mounting debate about school corporal punishment and about spanking in general, is hardly a contest between equals. Spankers may site [the Biblical] Proverbs or grumble, "you have your opinion, and I have mine," but the trend away from smacking kids in order to teach them is obvious and inexorable, and the overwhelming weight of informed opinion in opposition to it is undeniable. On May 3, 2004, the United Methodist Church passed two resolutions: one calling for a nationwide ban against school corporal punishment, and the other condemning spanking in the home. It "models aggressive behavior," the Methodist leadership said. On May 25, 2004, the Indianapolis Public Schools board voted the paddle into oblivion by a 6-1 decision, thereby protecting over 40,000 students in 79 schools. On the very same day, Pinellas County Schools, a large Florida school district, adopted a ban against corporal punishment which will take effect in the fall of 2004.

As for the trend away from child beating internationally, school corporal punishment is forbidden in nearly every developed democracy. Nowhere is there any discernible movement to restore it. Furthermore, spanking at home by parents is illegal in 12 nations. Sweden was the first to protect children in 1979, and Iceland was the most recent to do so in March 2003. Others include Norway, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Latvia, Croatia, Cyprus, Italy and Israel. Likely prospects to join the spank-free roster in the near term are Canada, Scotland, and New Zealand.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, about a third of a million [U.S.] schoolchildren are hit on their buttocks with boards annually by teachers, coaches and school principals.

G.C.: Considered in totality, the articles on your website seem to suggest disturbing connections between conceptualizations of religion and race/ethnicity, discipline and authority, and the physical abuse of minor children by authorized individuals and entities. Many of the articles cite abuses in the United States that are similar to the incidents of abuse and torture perpetrated by members of the U.S. military and associated personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Do you perceive causal connections between the levels of violence considered acceptable for infliction upon American children and actions such as the ones that occurred at Abu Ghraib?

J.R.: Yes, there is a strong consensus of informed opinion that recognizes a causal relationship between the punitive violence experienced by children and their subsequent violence toward others. When given the opportunity to reverse roles and become dispensers of punishment rather than recipients, many former victims seize that opportunity with gusto. Some find the taste of power so irresistible, so intoxicating, that they are drawn to professions that give them free reign over the defenseless. Their preferred venues are classrooms, children's sports, juvenile detention facilities, youth boot camps, the military, prisons, psychiatric hospitals, convalescent homes, and the like. Their apparent need to "dish it out" seems driven by a chronic compulsion to prove to the world and to themselves that they are no longer on the receiving end. All the available evidence supports the view that the worst abuses of power are a direct and predictable byproduct of the worst early mistreatment. It should be understood, however, that not every victim is destined to become a victimizer. The cycle can be broken.

G.C.: Would you comment on your work with inmates in the California prison system?

J.R.: For the past four years, I have visited each new group of men in the Pre-Release Program at California State Prison Folsom. The participants number about 30 and the group turns over every three weeks. These are men who are due to be released, and the program aims at giving them essential skills to help them succeed when they rejoin their families and society. I see them once for a session that runs approximately two and a half hours. My sole purpose is to persuade them -- as many of them as possible, that is -- never to hit their children. I make it clear to them that the class is not a parenting class, in the usual sense of the term. That would take much longer than our one brief session. My presentation focuses on that single element of parent-child interaction with which all the men in the group are familiar: corporal punishment. They've all had it done to them, and nearly all have done it to their children. For some of them, my visit marks the very first time they have ever heard anyone argue against hitting children. They aren't a passive audience. They challenge some of the points I raise and I, in turn, field the standard spankers' justifications and rationalizations. We debate. We talk about [the Biblical] Proverbs, as well as modern theories of child development. We talk about crime and punishment -- a field in which they are all qualified experts.

I tell them that every time they smack their son, they are not teaching him the lesson they think they are teaching. They are teaching him that once he is big enough and strong enough, it will be his turn to "dish it out." The spanking will fill him with an anger that may smolder and later erupt in acts of aggression against others, perhaps against younger siblings or family pets. Sometimes that anger turns inward and gnaws at the child's psyche like a parasite that must eventually be soothed by drugs or alcohol. I urge the men to try to think back and remember how they felt when they were being beaten -- not how they attempt to justify it in retrospect -- but how they felt at the time. I watch their sad expressions as they think about it and try to remember.

I ask them rhetorically: What do you think you are really teaching when you spank your daughter? When you hit her, the lesson you are teaching is that the important men in her life can slap her around. That sets her up for future abuse, by boyfriends, lovers, husbands, employers, and anyone who is in a position to take advantage of her. That's not the lesson you want to teach your little girl. Instead, I tell them, you should show her how real men behave. You do that by behaving like one. You are her first and most important example. If she gets respect and proper treatment from you, she'll expect it from others. She'll know the difference. She'll never allow herself to be a victim of bullying and abuse. The last thing in the world you want, when you are an old man, is to hear the doorbell ring in the middle of the night and find your daughter standing there with a swollen, bloody face because her husband or boyfriend got angry and hit her. But, I tell them, that's exactly what you set her up for when you spank her as a child. The men listen. Some seem to understand.

I like to think that as a result of these sessions with the men in the Pre-Release Program, fewer children will follow in their dads' footsteps to places like Folsom. That's my hope.

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