Washington Post, March 1, 1998
Loudoun Case Tests Faith in Corporal Punishment --
After Arrest of Principal for Spanking, Christian Schools Defend Old-Fashioned Discipline
By Maria Glod, Staff Writer
When a kindergarten girl at Faith Christian School refused to join a class game, Principal Lynn Kuitems stepped in -- with a wooden paddle.
Using a paddle on the buttocks for discipline at the Sterling religious school wasn't particularly unusual, but what happened next was: Kuitems was arrested for assault, even though the girl's parents had given the school written permission to use corporal punishment if necessary.
The case, which is pending in Loudoun County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, illustrates the murky line between corporal punishment and abuse. Sheriff's investigators allege that the paddling, which they said left a large bruise on the girl's bottom, "far exceeded" a disciplinary action.
Kuitems has declined to comment on the incident, and the family -- which filed the complaint -- has remained unidentified. School officials have stood by their principal and their corporal punishment policy, saying strict discipline is supported by the Bible and "communicates love."
In a statement about the case, the school quoted the Bible, saying, "We believe that when a spanking is done for the welfare of a child, the discipline, which may seem unpleasant at the time, later on produces a harvest of righteousness and peace."
The District of Columbia and 27 states, including Maryland and Virginia, have banned physical punishment in public schools. But it is part of the system at some private schools -- usually those with a strong religious affiliation -- amid a long-standing debate over whether it is harmful or helpful to raising children.
"I do believe it's a biblical bit of wisdom," said Harold Wolcott, administrator at Capital Christian Academy in Upper Marlboro, where the school's 425 students occasionally are paddled by a principal with parental permission.
Wolcott said he sometimes uses corporal punishment to discipline his own seven children. "It has to be done with discretion and care," he said.
At Capital Christian Academy, there have been three or four paddlings in the last year, Wolcott said. As in most other area schools that allow paddling or spanking, blows are restricted to the buttocks and a witness is always present.
Both these procedures are used at Faith Christian School, as well as a requirement that parents give written consent before a child is physically punished, school officials said. Under school policy, parents also may choose to come in when necessary to discipline their own children or may outright forbid corporal punishment in the school.
Supporters of corporal punishment say that when properly administered, spanking or paddling is effective, if followed by an explanation of why the punishment was given.
S. DuBose Ravanel, a pediatrician in private practice in High Point, N.C., who has written in support of corporal punishment, said paddling can be effective as long as it is administered in moderation in the context of a nurturing relationship.
"It's common sense," Ravanel said. "It teaches the child that something's not acceptable."
But opponents of spanking, including Irwin Hyman, a physician at Temple University's National Center for Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives, argue that spanking or hitting can only harm children and that other forms of discipline are more effective.
"There's no good place to draw the line between what is abuse and what isn't, especially when there is a mark," Hyman said. "There's no research that has shown any beneficial effects, and there are too many disadvantages to it. It's better not to do it."
The difference between spanking and child abuse isn't always clear, even when it comes to parents. "State laws all say something to the effect that parents can use reasonable force but they don't say whether it's slapping on the wrist or slapping on the buttocks," said Murray Straus, a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire who has studied corporal punishment. Straus said law enforcement authorities often use the presence of a mark or bruise to gauge whether the punishment went too far.
In one recent case, a Fairfax City woman charged with assault for allegedly spanking a neighbor's child was ordered by a judge to complete an anger management or parenting class. Mary Jane Litchfield, 36, was arrested Dec. 6 after police said she spanked a 10-year-old boy five times after her son complained that other children were shoving each other in the Fairfax Square apartment complex.
For educators, the Faith Christian School case is just another illustration of why many private schools that support corporal punishment in theory shy away from it in practice. Sharon Overstreet, Leesburg Christian School administrator, said that while she believes corporal punishment is advocated by the Bible and would help some of her school's 160 students, it isn't implemented there because of potential liability.
Overstreet said she has never struck a student but has occasionally used corporal punishment to keep her own children in line.
"There's a right way to do a reminder swat, and there's a wrong way," Overstreet said. "It should never be done in anger. It has to be followed by lots of hugs and kisses and you have to explain why it happened."
Norman Fuller, an assistant principal at Bethlehem Baptist Christian Academy in Fairfax, said the school used to administer "reminder swats," but dropped the policy this year. He said that the school decided that such discipline is a parent's responsibility and that officials were concerned about potential liability. There was no reaction to the change from parents, he said.
While Fuller acknowledged that corporal punishment can cross a line, he said he believes that in many cases it can be just what a student needs to stay out of trouble.
"In the media and on TV it always shows the person who does it as raving," Fuller said. "That's never how it should be. There should be a lot of love. What it does is properly train a child, and there is a lot of respect that comes from that."
But some recent research has found that spanking is likely to cause long-term behavioral problems, regardless of the amount of loving attention parents give to children. A study by researchers at the University of New Hampshire, published last August in the medical journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, found that children who get spanked regularly are more likely over time to cheat or lie, to be disobedient at school, to bully others and to have less remorse for what they do wrong.
Rebecca Socolar, a professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina who has researched the effects of spanking, said the study was important, but she said more research is needed before it can be said that spanking is always detrimental. On the other hand, she added, "There also is no evidence spanking is good, and no evidence spanking is necessary."