Lawsuits Touch Off Debate Over Paddling in the
By Jodi Wilgoren, The New York Times, May 3, 2001
WOLLE, La. — Laid out on the kitchen table, the snapshots of 10- year-old Megan Cahanin make a grim collage. They are not of her sweet face, but of her bare behind. There are 12 in all, taken, her mother says, day by day as the doughnut- shaped bruises on each cheek faded from a mottled purple to a dirty gray.
Megan's father, Robert Cahanin, recalls that when he first saw the bruises, hours after she was paddled by her school principal for elbowing a friend in the cafeteria, he collapsed on the floor, crying. Then he picked up the phone and called the police, the school board, the governor, his lawyer.
"It hurt me more than it hurt Megan," Mr. Cahanin said in a twist on the old parental prespanking saw. "You don't hit on my baby."
Megan, a fourth grader whose name appears more often on the honor roll than on a referral slip to the principal's office, is one of millions of public school students still subject to corporal punishment, and in March her family joined a small but apparently growing number who are suing to stop it. Megan's classmate DeWayne Ebarb, a hyperactive child who has been paddled regularly throughout his time at Zwolle Elementary — on 17 occasions in 8 weeks last fall alone — filed a second suit in late April, leaving this close- knit logging town of 2,000 pondering a practice as old as time.
Though it gets little attention, corporal punishment in schools remains legal in 23 states, and the United States Education Department's most recent data show that 365,000 children were paddled in the 1997-98 school year, most in a swath of Southern states that could be called the Belt Belt.
Yet recent debate over corporal punishment focuses largely on parents, with even many pro-spanking psychologists and pediatricians loath to support the principal's paddle. At the same time, though, some school districts and states say they must increasingly rely on physical discipline as the public pushes for a crackdown on student misbehavior.
And legislation pending in Congress as part of President Bush's education package could expand the practice by giving teachers and principals broad protection from liability for disciplinary actions.
"Almost every democracy in the world has bans on corporal punishment — we're going in the opposite direction," said Robert Fathman of Dublin, Ohio, president of the National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment in Schools. "You can't whack a prisoner, but you can whack a kindergarten child."
But in many communities like Zwolle (pronounced zeh-WAH-lee), a hamlet about 80 miles south of Shreveport best known for its annual tamale festival, parents and educators base their support for corporal punishment on two powerful sources: the Bible, and their own experience.
"That's the way that I grew up, that's the way it's always been in this society here," said Dan Leslie, superintendent in Sabine Parish, whose 12 schools include Zwolle Elementary. "You act ugly, you do something bad, you get a whipping."
Of the 27 states that have banned corporal punishment in school, the first was New Jersey, in 1867. Massachusetts came next, a century later, in 1971. When Mr. Fathman started his crusade in 1984, after his own daughter landed on the painful end of a paddle, five states had adopted bans. The 27th, West Virginia, acted in 1994, following states that also include New York and Connecticut.
The number of paddlings around the country, the Education Department figures show, dropped from 1.4 million in the 1979-80 school year to 613,000 in 1989-90 to 470,000 in 1993-94. In many states that allow corporal punishment, individual districts ban it, and in most schools that allow it parents can sign a form exempting their children. Black students are 2.5 times as likely to be struck as white students, a reflection of what researchers have long found to be more frequent and harsher discipline for members of minorities.
Court challenges have been largely unsuccessful, given a 1977 decision by the Supreme Court rejecting the notion that paddling is cruel and unusual punishment. A decade later, a federal appeals court ruled that a New Mexico girl held upside down and beaten had been denied due process, signaling that school officials could be held liable for severe beatings. But similar findings have been rare.
"The vast preponderance of the lawsuits challenging the use of corporal punishment in individual instances are unsuccessful," said Charles Vergon, a professor at Youngstown State University in Ohio who has studied the issue for 15 years.
Families tend to win such cases, Professor Vergon said, only when educators have "abused in a fairly significant way the public's trust."
The federal liability-protection legislation mimicks statutes in nine states where paddling is popular, including Louisiana. Scott McLellan, a White House spokesman, said the measure would head off frivolous lawsuits against educators and cited a survey showing that 31 percent of high school principals were involved in litigation last year, up from 9 percent a decade earlier.
Many education and medical groups oppose corporal punishment, saying it aggravates aggression and can cause depression.
But Robert Surgenor, a detective in Berea, Ohio, who wrote a recent book on corporal punishment, said "pain is probably the most effective form of discipline." Over 14 years, Detective Surgenor said, he investigated more than 150 cases of children who had assaulted their parents and found that fewer than 2 percent had been subjected to corporal punishment, a much smaller proportion than in the community as a whole.
Emily Williams, a kindergarten teacher in rural Mississippi, said that when she arrived from Williams College last year, she was horrified to hear teachers striking students in the hallways, the classroom and the cafeteria. But by March, frustrated by her own inability to control her class, she had picked up the paddle herself.
"It's so easy to say that's crazy or that's brutal or unnecessary or savage, but it's part of the whole system," Ms. Williams said. "A lot of things are different down here."
Robert Cahanin and his wife, Chenette, never complained when their older child, Matthew, got a few swats for leaving his seat or ignoring directions. But it was different when Mrs. Cahanin picked up Megan, who weighed 68 pounds, from school that day last December. Megan started to cry. Then she showed the bruises.
"She had to give me a reason why she hit Megan that hard," Mrs. Cahanin said of the principal, Judy Rials, who had administered the customary three licks. "If I had done that to Megan, I would be consulting an attorney to get me out of jail."
When she heard of the Cahanins' complaints, Joy Ebarb, DeWayne's mother, began to question the repeated paddling of her son, who takes Ritalin for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. DeWayne says the paddling does not hurt. But his mother says he has started to flinch when she reaches to hug him.
At school, Mrs. Rials keeps the Ten Commandments posted behind her desk, along with the aphorisms "When we tolerate everything . . . we stand for nothing," and "That which doesn't kill you will make you stronger." The teachers have 3-by-9- inch paddles, most made by students in wood shop; Mrs. Rials's, about six inches longer, was taken by the district attorney's office, which cleared her after an investigation into the paddling of Megan.
"It's not our favorite part of the day," Mrs. Rials said of paddling, which she has done hundreds of times in four years as principal. But it is better than suspension, she said, particularly for fourth graders, who must pass a state test to be promoted. "You can't educate a child if they're not in the classroom," she said. "Keeping children from the classroom could be devastating. It could change their lives."
Since her paddling, Megan Cahanin has started biting her nails and, most mornings, tries to avoid going to school, her parents say.
The Cahanin and Ebarb lawsuits, against the school district and Mrs. Rials, argue that corporal punishment violates the guarantee of equal protection, since it is illegal for those in authority to hit prisoners, nursing home residents or children in foster care.
The question has generated scores of messages on a community forum on the Internet, and gossip around town. Some accuse Megan's parents of beating her themselves, or blame them for showing the snapshots around. Others suggest that the whole school district, the entire town hierarchy, is corrupt. People quote religious maxims, and talk about when they were coming up.
"The Lord said, Spare the rod, spoil the child, and I think he knows a lot more than those bleeding-heart liberals," Pat Ebarb (no relation to DeWayne), the police chief in nearby Noble, said over coffee and cigarettes at Bill & Sissy's Cafe. "A child needs discipline. I don't believe they ought to be abused or mistreated, but if they need their behind dusted, let them get it."
Tears come whenever Mrs. Cahanin takes out those pictures of her daughter's bruised buttocks. With sorrow, she recalls a moment months before when Megan was playing school in her room, swinging a fly-swatter at her dolls' backsides, and wishes she had signed a paper that would have prohibited paddling her daughter.
Megan, sitting on her parents' back porch watching a downpour hit Toledo Bend Lake, said, "You try to forget about it, but sometimes you just can't."
"It's so painful seeing that lady every day," she said. "Whenever I see a paddle, I just move away."