Hands off those kids -- a 30-year crusade
Corporal punishment leaves emotional scars, retired teacher says
By Eric Kurhi, STAFF WRITER, San Ramon Valley Times, January 7, 2008

Photo: Jay Solmonson, Staff, San Ramon Valley Times

Jordan Riak -- Alamo man keeps up crusade against spanking
ALAMO Some kids get "rulered," while others are "whupped" or "popped." Sometimes they get "cuffed," "drubbed," "blipped" or "boxed."

The semantics don't matter, said Jordan Riak: It's all a spanking, and according to the longtime corporal punishment abolitionist, it's unacceptable by any name, anywhere.

"The public is in denial," he said. "You have to invent funny words to keep it from being serious. It's cartoon language: 'Oh, I'm not violent, I just gave him a butt-warming.'"

Riak, 72, is a retired teacher who has dedicated about three decades of his life trying to convince people that sparing the rod isn't spoiling the child, and using it can cause mental scars for life.

It's a movement that has gained ground, particularly when it comes to corporal punishment in schools. The practice is now outlawed in 39 states, with legislation drafted by Riak leading to California's ban in 1987.

"It has to start in schools," he said. "If (teachers) do it, it represents authority, it represents the government condoning it. Parents say, 'What's wrong with it if the government can do it?' And schools use the excuse, 'What's wrong with it if they do it at home?' One hand washes the other."

Sitting in a small, cluttered backyard office not much bigger than a woodshed, Riak talked about how he got involved in an effort he considers a natural extension of the civil rights and women's liberation movements.

"(Spanking children) is the same as husbands hitting their wives 75 years ago," he said. "They're supposed to honor and obey, and if she serves the coffee cold, well, then she gets a slap to remind her."

He found his crusade when he moved his family to Sydney, Australia, in the 1970s. His 8-year-old son came home from school one day, terrified after seeing a classmate in tears after being struck across the palms for misbehaving.

"I was amazed that this was going on," he said. "I was raised in New Jersey, a state that banned corporal punishment (in schools) when Abraham Lincoln was president. Even my mother thought it no longer existed in civilized nations."

Riak went to the school and asked to see the switch that was used. He then refused to return it.

"I told the headmaster, 'This is a weapon. It has no business in schools, and no business being used on children.'" Riak said. "Then I called all the media outlets and told them I'm turning myself in to the Paddington Police Station for the theft of government property."

Riak took the publicity stunt and ran with it, often posing for photographers in his yard, burying the headmaster's switch.

"Then I'd dig it up again and rebury it when another photographer came by," he said. "I did it several times and probably still have (the switch) around here somewhere."

He got the reaction he wanted, and that story has been retold several times since. Eventually, efforts he started led to a ban on corporal punishment in Sydney schools.

Paula LeDoux, a member of Riak's group Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education, said that first stunt is a good example of how Riak goes about his advocacy.

"He's very level-headed, and uses nonshaming and nonblaming methods," said LeDoux, who is employed by the Vacaville Police Department as a social worker in domestic violence cases. "You have to be like that or people won't hear what you're saying."

That's not to say Riak is against direct action.

"I can't stand injustice," he said. "I can't stand to see someone defenseless getting hurt and no one doing anything about it."

He said that earlier this month he was at a supermarket in Alamo when he saw a grandmother shouting at a crying young girl. He approached and handed them both one of his "Kid Safe Zone" stickers with an anti-spanking logo.

"The grandmother said, 'It's just discipline,' and I said, 'Discipline, yes. Hitting, no.'"

Nadine Block of Ohio-based nonprofit End Physical Punishment of Children said Riak's efforts have been instrumental in getting legislation passed across the United States.

"He has always made really strong statements, much to his credit," Block said. "A lot of people like to be meek about issues like this."

She said that her group and Riak's have often collaborated, keeping lawmakers informed about what other states are doing and urging them to follow suit.

It's an effort that Riak says keeps him busy seven days a week. He said he often wakes up in the middle of the night to check his e-mail and respond to queries from the 2,000 people on his Web site's mailing list.

At home, Riak's son said his father set an example that he follows with his own children, ages 1 and 4.

"There are rewards for good behavior and a lack of rewards for behavior that isn't good," said Oren Riak, 42. "I could never imagine hitting our kids. If I raise my voice to my daughter, it's shocking to her. I'd never raise my hand that's crazy. A grown man raising an open hand to a 40-pound girl is just nuts."

Jordan Riak called spanking a lazy method of parenting: "If (children) are not listening, find a more skilled way to get their attention. If parents are looking for a one-sentence solution, they're going to be disappointed. Parenting is a major commitment, and there should be lessons, like a driver's education course before you can get behind the wheel. It should be as essential."

That sort of talk strikes a nerve with a lot of people, said Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, who last year introduced legislation to set a clear definition of what type of punishment is unacceptable in the home.

"We found ourselves in the middle of a giant culture war," said Lieber. "When the topic came up, we were probably getting about 95 to 100 percent negative feedback on the idea. It later mellowed to 85 to 90 percent negative."

Lieber said she hopes to revisit the issue at some point.

Riak is pushing an initiative to ban corporal punishment in North Carolina schools. He is also warming up for a rematch in Oakland, where in 1999 he pushed for a declaration condemning the use of such punishment in the home.

Like Lieber's statewide legislation, Riak's attempt in Oakland attracted scorn and ridicule, although such laws have been enacted in 24 nations, with seven passing legislation just last year.

Riak acknowledged that people resent being told how they should raise their kids, and he gets his fair share of hate mail.

An excerpt from a December e-mail: "Without properly and thoughtfully applied stern discipline, (not useless timeout peter pan fantasy crap), a child will grow to be a disrespectful and anger filled person. ... Don't even think you'll come into my home and tell me that I'll not spank my child, you may just find yourself getting a season of applied leather education for yourself."

While Riak's camp maintains that most experts in academia and pediatrics agree that corporal punishment is detrimental to healthy childhood development, there have been studies that show it can be safe if not used excessively.

That's something Riak says makes no sense.

"You can't defend it in any logical manner," he said. "Is it OK to give children an occasional cigarette because just one won't kill them? That's foolish. Sure, one smack won't turn a child into a serial killer, but who knows where it will lead?

"If your neighbor's lawn sprinkler accidentally leaves spots on your new car, you can't go next door and smack his rear to get his attention. If you forget to turn off the lights when you leave the office for the evening, your boss can't give you a smack the following morning to help you remember. That's assault. Children are the last class of people who are still considered hittable."

Eric Kurhi can be reached at 925-847-2184 or ekurhi@bayareanewsgroup.com.


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