The details about what led to Trey Clayton being paddled by the assistant principal of his Mississippi high school are in dispute, but there is no question about what happened moments after the March 2011 incident.
Just steps out of the office, Trey fainted. The 14-year-old's resulting fall — face first onto the concrete floor — split his chin open, fractured his jaw and shattered five teeth, says Trey's attorney, Joseph Murray .
Corporal punishment — typically swats with a wooden paddle on the backside of a student — is banned in most of the nation. However, 19 states, mostly in the South, still allow it, according to the Center for Effective Discipline, a group that seeks to abolish corporal punishment in U.S. schools.
"We're not talking paddling here — we're talking a beating," says Murray, who is representing Trey in a $750,000 lawsuit against the Tate County School District in Independence, alleging the boy's civil rights were violated. Lawyers for the school district have denied most of the allegations and have asked a federal court judge to dismiss the case.
The Tate County School District recorded 455 instances of corporal punishment involving students without disabilities in 2009, according to the latest data available from the U.S. Department of Education. During that same period, 1,220 discipline cases — 91% involving black students — resulted in the paddle being used in Caddo Parish School Board schools in the Shreveport, La., area. And, Dekalb County Schools in Alabama recorded 1,355 paddling cases, the data show.
That use of corporal punishment is rooted in a strong Bible Belt belief in the proverbial "spare the rod and spoil the child," says George Holden, a Southern Methodist University psychology professor. It's reinforced by Southern sensibilities that favor obedience and respect for authority, he says.
"Most people were spanked when they were kids, and they think that's the proper way to discipline," says Holden, chairman of the 2011 Global Summit on Ending Corporal Punishment and Promoting Positive Discipline. "They make the erroneous correlation that spanking equals good discipline and if a child isn't behaving, he must not have been spanked enough — that's fallacious."
Defenders of paddling
States allowing corporal punishment
Source: The Center for Effective Discipline
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
Some parents and educators say corporal punishment, used sparingly and appropriately, can be an effective discipline tool. The key is being aware of the backgrounds and needs of your students, says Priscilla Pullen, a principal at Midway Elementary Professional Development School in Shreveport, La. For some children, a paddling might put an end to a discipline problem, while for others it could add fuel to the fire, she says.
"I believe in spanking because I'm from the old school, but it's my last resort," says Pullen, who finds the "threat" of a paddling is an effective motivation tool. "You must know your children. You must be able to tell a behavior problem from 'I got a problem at home. I need help.' "
The Department of Education has yet to release complete figures for 2009, but a previous data release shows 223,190 students were physically disciplined nationwide in 2006. That was down 18% from 2004, the data show.
In at least 10 states — Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Missouri, Texas and Wyoming — there is little recourse should a student be injured. That's because school personnel carrying out punishment in the course of their official duties are protected from criminal and civil liability, according to the Center for Effective Discipline.
That leaves teachers and other school workers with protections that most citizens, including parents, don't have, says Gregory Yaghmai, an attorney in Birmingham, Ala.
"If you are a private citizen and you work at Walmart, you have no immunity, but if you are a schoolteacher, you do," says Yaghmai, who represents Payton Lewis, a student in Dekalb County, Ala., who was paddled in 2010 by his science teacher for a failing grade on a test. "The law, sometimes, is not favorable to the student."
A spokesman for the Dekalb County school board refused to comment on the case.
Yaghmai, Murray and other attorneys have nonetheless sued on behalf of students using other legal strategies. For example, Trey Clayton's lawsuit alleges several civil rights violations, including the Tate County School District's use of corporal punishment, is discriminatory because more boys than girls are subject to the discipline method. That, the lawsuit says, is a violation of the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause.
Efforts to ban paddling nationally in U.S. schools have fallen short. Similar statewide legislative initiatives recently in Florida, Louisiana and Texas also have gained little support.
That frustrates Tenika Jones of Williston, Fla., who alerted child protective authorities after her 5-year-old son received a paddling in February 2011 — for allegedly striking another student — that required a doctor's care. "If I would have hit my son like that and he came to school and told them, I would have gone to jail and my kids would have been taken away from me," says Jones, who has hired an attorney. "It's just wrong."
Contributing: Bath also reports for The Times in Shreveport, La.