Knight-Ridder, April 29, 1998
Half a million schoolchildren violated
By John Lang
She was the homecoming queen and an honor student, but that didn't stop the 6-foot-4, 250-pound assistant principal from striking her bottom so hard with a paddle that she suffered vaginal bleeding for three weeks.
He was a 9-year-old who'd suffered a concussion in a tussle with another fourth-grader -- so the principal hit him three times with a paddle for fighting.
Those are the allegations at the heart of two separate federal court cases involving two different public school districts in southern Ohio, where beating students for their behavior appears to be as common as class noise.
It's a situation that's hardly confined to this tradition-minded pocket of Appalachia close to the Kentucky border. Across the nation, 23 states -- mainly across the South and mountain West -- still allow paddling of pupils for reasons that range from fighting to using rude words to disrupting a class.
It's a curious custom, too. Americans don't tolerate the beating of prisoners. That is prohibited by regulations of the federal prison system. It is not allowed in state and municipal jails, where it is either banned by local codes or considered to be covered by the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. When physical force in punishments does happen (aside from legal executions), it generally results in felony charges against the jailers.
Striking another person is not allowed in mental hospitals or in any branch of the American military either.
Yet almost half a million American children a year are beaten repeatedly with wooden paddles by their educators, according to surveys by the U.S. Department of Education.
Around the world, this is permitted in only three industrialized nations: the United States, Canada and Australia. Poland outlawed corporal punishment of its students as long ago as 1783, Italy in 1860, France in 1881, Turkey in 1923, China in 1949 and Britain this year.
Paddling students has persisted in the United States, although it has been condemned by more than 40 influential national organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of State Boards of Education.
A far more powerful organization does like it: the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1977, the court ruled in Ingraham vs. Wright that schools may use corporal punishment -- even over the objections of parents. Prior to that ruling, there were few, if any, state statutes regulating the use of physical punishment in schools. After the decision, legislatures began to look harder at the issue and 25 states wrote laws locally banning corporal punishment.
That put paddling in a steep decline. According to U.S. Department of Education data, in 1976 the number of students paddled was more than 1.5 million. The total has fallen in every survey -- to 470,000 in the most recent, 1994.
"It wasn't working," says retired principal Sid Leonard in Toledo, Ohio. "The same ones kept coming back for more. Hitting children did not seem to improve their behavior. It seemed, in fact, to be reinforcing the very behaviors I was attempting to eliminate."
Still, in many school districts, the chances that some adult will strike your child with a paddle are surprisingly high. The National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment in Schools cites the "Ten Worst States" by percentage of students struck, as of last year:
-- Arkansas, 13.4 percent, 56,262 students;
-- Mississippi, 10.9 percent, 55,012 students;
-- Alabama, 7.3 percent, 30,541 students;
-- Tennessee, 5.3 percent, 44,842 students;
-- Georgia, 3.39 percent, 42,398 students;
-- Texas, 3.36 percent, 114,213 students;
-- Louisiana, 3.3 percent, 26,323 students;
-- Oklahoma, 3 percent, 15,765 students;
-- South Carolina, 1.6 percent, 9,995 students;
-- Missouri, 1.4 percent, 13,178 students.
Even though these totals are far below what they were two decades ago, the numbers seem to show a growing racial bias. In 1976, when the total was 1.5 million, the percentage of black students struck was 29; in 1994, when it was 470,000, the percentage of blacks hit was 39.
Wherever paddling happens and for whatever reasons, the common result is worse behavior than before, according to child care experts.
"Corporal punishment is of limited effectiveness and has potentially deleterious side effects," states a report on effective discipline by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
"The more children are spanked, the more anger they report as adults, the more likely they are to spank their own children, the more likely they are to approve of hitting a spouse, and the more marital conflict they experience as adults.
"Spanking has been associated with higher rates of physical aggression, more substance abuse and increased risk of crime and violence when used with older children and adolescents."
While 90 percent of American families report having used spanking as a means of discipline at some time, according to the pediatricians' study, 85 percent also expressed remorse and agitation while doing it. And 54 percent of mothers later said that spanking was the wrong thing to have done in at least half the times.
"Parents are more likely to use aversive techniques of discipline when they are angry or irritable, depressed, fatigued and stressed," says the academy.
So aren't the same moods and motivations at risk when educators paddle students?
Rhonda Rose of South Webster, Ohio, is one parent who is convinced of this. She notes that her school district had 168 paddlings in nine months and the high school, where most of the punishments were given, has just 400 students.
"Something is wrong when we have so many paddlings in such a tiny community," says Rose. "It's against the law here to strike a dog in public. That's cruelty to animals. Yet they can take a board -- like my attorney says, that's a lethal weapon -- and hit your child."
Rose got a lawyer after the doctor in the emergency room where she took her daughter urged her to, after looking at the bruise that covered her 17-year-old daughter's buttocks.
Pretty and popular, Bria Rose had no record of disciplinary problems until Jan. 31, 1997. She had been having trouble with another girl student, who her mother says had been trying to bully her. On that day, the other girl struck Bria and called her a "bitch." Bria shoved the girl.
The other girl was suspended. Bria was told she could choose a three-day suspension or a paddling. Bria was a honor student taking a double class load, and a three-day suspension would mean missing six classes in each subject. She also was a star basketball player, and suspension would take her out of tournament games. She chose the spanking.
When her parents heard this was to happen, they protested. Too bad, they were told by the assistant principal, Bria chose the paddle.
"He hit her just once, but so hard she collapsed across the desk," says her mother. "The man is 6-4, 250, 260 pounds. Bria is 5-8, 128 pounds. Her bruise lasted two weeks. She bled vaginally for the next 23 days. The doctors feared her uterus was knocked out of place. They determined finally it was the shock from such a hard blow, and her body just didn't know how to react."
On July 11, 1994, at an elementary school outside Portsmouth, Ohio, it was the reaction of educators that led to another federal court case. According to the complaint, here's what happened:
The principal called a meeting of all teachers, which required them to leave their classrooms unattended. Trent Connor's fourth-grade teacher turned on a video and turned off the lights.
Trent and another boy got into a fight. Trent fell backward over his desk, hit his head on the floor and lay unconscious for several minutes. Other students ran into the hall, crying for help. The teacher came, gave Trent an ice pack to hold to a fist-sized lump on the back of his head and marched him dazed and dizzy to the principal, who paddled him.
When Trent's mother came to school to pick him up, she was told of the fight and her son's punishment, but not about his injury. She didn't know of it until her car hit a bump and the boy screamed in pain. He had to be hospitalized for a concussion.
Officials at both schools named in the two lawsuits are muzzled by their lawyers. There's another side to every story, but they can't tell it. However, the superintendent of Bria's school district, Paul White, will talk about school paddling in general -- and his effort to understand the criticism is poignant.
"I'd like to see research on long-term negative effects," he says. "I've tried to find it, and I can't. I've asked for data on whether, if there are 611 school districts in Ohio and 50 still permit corporal punishment, is it confined to rural or low-wealth areas? Is it allowed in urban or wealthy areas? We're one of the Appalachian counties, and I tend to think it's part of the culture here. But should I be driving in another direction, leading my people out of darkness?"
Lawyers for the children, meanwhile, are using language in their filings that casts the paddling of students in a light that could have impact far beyond the hills and hollows of Appalachia -- if their charges prevail.
Trent's complaint alleges "bodily injury, severe pain, suffering, emotional distress and anxiety and violation of his constitutional rights."
Bria's complaint cites the paddle, as defined in state law, as "a deadly weapon," and the paddling as "unlawful assault with a deadly weapon" as well as "sexual abuse and sexual harassment" that "shocks the conscience in violation of the plaintiff's substantive due process rights pursuant to the U.S. Constitution."