Testimony of Shelly Gaspersohn to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice, October 17, 1984
Miss Gaspersohn describes her beating and injury by an assistant school principal at Dunn High School, Dunn, North Carolina.



The subcommittee convened, pursuant to notice, at 9:35 a.m., in room SD-226, Dirksen Senate Office Building, Hon. Arlen Specter (Chairman of the subcommittee) presiding.

Staff present: Mary Louise Westmoreland, chief counsel; Eva Carney, counsel; Tracy McGee, chief clerk.


Senator SPECTER The Juvenile Justice Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee will begin this hearing on corporal punishment in schools.

This hearing is one of a series of hearings on the subject of violence as it affects juveniles and on the subject of abuse of juveniles, and today, we are taking a look at one aspect as it relates to corporal punishment in schools, that is, infliction of punishment on students where there may be a situation of student misbehavior, with our inquiry focusing on what is an appropriate range of discipline by school officials.

There are a number of States in the United States which prohibit corporal punishment by the school boards, and there are a number of cities which similarly prohibit corporal punishment. But by and large in the United States, the question of whether there ought to be physical punishment--that is, a whipping of a child in response to a disciplinary problem--that issue is left up to the local school board, and is not a matter easy to resolve in terms of disciplinary problems in schools in response to specific situations. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, a branch of the Government over which this subcommittee has oversight, has been looking at the problem of violence in schools generally, and this issue of corporal punishment is one which falls under the general ambit of those considerations. We have a distinguished panel of experts this morning, and we are going to start off with Miss Shelly Gaspersohn, who is accompanied by her mother, Marlene, from Dunn, NC. Would you please step forward?

Miss Shelly Gaspersohn, as I understand it, has, as a student, been subjected to certain corporal punishment with a wooden paddle and has had an experience which brings into sharp focus the kind of considerations which are involved in this issue as to corporal punishment in school.

Welcome, Miss Gaspersohn and Mrs. Gaspersohn. We appreciate you being with us.

Let us start with you, Shelly, if we may. First of all, would you tell us how old you are?


Miss GASPERSOHN I am 20 years old.

Senator SPECTER And this experience occurred several years ago, when you were 17?

Miss GASPERSOHN Yes, sir.

Senator SPECTER What school were you attending at that time?

Miss GASPERSOHN Dunn High School in Dunn, NC.

Senator SPECTER All right. In your own way, proceed to tell us what occurred.

Miss GASPERSOHN OK. Mr. Chairman, first, I would like to thank you for inviting me here to speak on the issue of corporal punishment.

It was December 1981, when I skipped school for the first time since I had been at school at all. When I returned to school the next day, I was put in a program called In-School Suspension. In that program, the teachers are to bring you your schoolwork and give you homework, so you can keep up with your studies. I was put in In-School Suspension for 6 days, and I stayed there for 3 days. In that time, I did not receive the homework that I needed to keep up with my studies, and I became concerned about that, because I was a delegate for a scholarship at the University of North Carolina.

I spoke to the assistant principal at the school about this, and he told me that he was not involved with the teachers and was not responsible for their duties. And I asked him for an alternative to the punishment they had given me, and he told me that I could receive corporal punishment as the alternative. He told me that it would be three thrashes for each day that I would get out early, which would be nine for the 3 days I would get out early.

The next day I went to see him to get that alternative, and he said he would cut it down to six--just to be nice, I suppose. I do not know.

I received the beating. I could not take all six of them at one time. It was about two at a time, because the pain was so terrible.

Senator SPECTER When you say you took the beating, who was it who inflicted the punishment?

Miss GASPERSOHN The assistant principal.

Senator SPECTER And what did he use to inflict the punishment?

Miss GASPERSOHN It was a wooden paddle, I would say about so long, and about that wide.

Senator SPECTER You are describing a paddle about 2 feet long and about 6 inches wide.

Miss GASPERSOHN That is right.

Senator SPECTER And how thick?

Miss GASPERSOHN A quarter-inch, I would imagine.

Senator SPECTER And where were you struck?

Miss GASPERSOHN On my buttocks.

Senator SPECTER And what position were you in when you were struck?

Miss GASPERSOHN I was leaning onto a counter top, bent over, and he was standing behind me.

Senator SPECTER You were struck in the buttocks, leaning over a counter top, and he stood behind you and had a board about 2 feet by 6 inches by 2 inches in thickness?

Miss GASPERSOHN That is correct.

Senator SPECTER And how many times were you struck?

Miss GASPERSOHN Six times.

Senator SPECTER Six times--all at once?

Miss GASPERSOHN No; two at a time. And there were two other girls also being beaten at the same time, and we alternated in between the three of us, two beatings at a time.

Senator SPECTER So you were struck twice, and then there was an interval of time, and then you were struck twice again?

Miss GASPERSOHN That is correct.

Senator SPECTER And there was a second interval of time, and you were struck twice after that?

Miss GASPERSOHN Yes, sir.

Senator SPECTER And how many other young women were being subjected to the same punishment at the same time?

Miss GASPERSOHN There were two others.

Senator SPECTER And what had they done, if you know?

Miss GASPERSOHN They had also skipped school. However, it wasn’t for the first time.

Senator SPECTER Now, you had skipped school, which led to this punishment?

Miss GASPERSOHN Yes, sir.

Senator SPECTER And how many times had you skipped school?

Miss GASPERSOHN This was the first occasion.

Senator SPECTER On one occasion, you skipped school for how many days?

Miss GASPERSOHN One day.

Senator SPECTER One day. What was your reason for skipping school on that day?

Miss GASPERSOHN Well, the girl that I rode with to school had a problem with her boyfriend--she was one of the other girls who skipped school--and I told her I would leave school with her and go find her boyfriend.

Senator SPECTER So you spent the day with your girlfriend, who has a problem with her boyfriend?

Miss GASPERSOHN Yes, sir.

Senator SPECTER And the first punishment which was given to you was a suspension from school--for how many days again?

Miss GASPERSOHN That was an In-School Suspension, for 6 days. It was a program where you would go into the classroom and stay there all day, and the teachers brought you your schoolwork into this one classroom. It was isolation from the rest of the school.

Senator SPECTER But you found that unsatisfactory because you could not keep up with your scholarship program?

Miss GASPERSOHN I could not keep up with my work. I was not getting my homework, and I was sitting in the classroom doing practically nothing.

Senator SPECTER Why weren’t you getting your homework to do? Why couldn’t that be worked out?

Miss GASPERSOHN Well, the teacher that was the head of the room was to get the assignments, and for a couple of days she was out. We had a substitute, and she really did not know what she was doing. I did get some homework, but it just wasn’t enough. And I also had a calculus course at that time, where there were only three other students besides me in that class, and they went relatively fast in the course, and without a teacher, I was falling behind; I really could not teach calculus to myself.

Senator SPECTER Did you discuss this decision to have corporal punishment as an alternative--did you discuss that with your parents before doing that?

Miss GASPERSOHN Yes, I did, and they told me under no circumstances to do it. I talked to them about it after the second day, and they said not to do it, and I went back and still, after getting no assignments, I decided on my own to go ahead and get it.

Senator SPECTER So you disregarded your parents’ instruction on it?

Miss GASPERSOHN That is right.

Senator SPECTER Did the school officials confer with your parents before administering the corporal punishment?

Miss GASPERSOHN No, they did not.

Senator SPECTER How big was the assistant principal who did the whipping?

Miss GASPERSOHN I would say about 6’2”, 200 pounds. He is an assistant football coach.

Senator SPECTER An assistant football coach, and a pretty big man.

Miss GASPERSOHN Yes sir.

Senator SPECTER And you took two of those whacks at a time?

Miss GASPERSOHN Yes sir.

Senator SPECTER How did it feel?

Miss GASPERSOHN I had never, ever been hit like that before. It was the worst pain I have ever felt in my life. I felt violated.

Senator SPECTER Did you protest?

Miss GASPERSOHN Yes, I did.

Senator SPECTER What did he say?

Miss GASPERSOHN He said I could go back to In-School Suspension, but that would not resolve my problem, so I went ahead with it.

Senator SPECTER And you took six of those whacks all on the same day?

Miss GASPERSOHN Yes, sir.

Senator SPECTER Did you sustain any injuries as a result of that beating?

Miss GASPERSOHN Yes, I did.

Senator SPECTER What injuries?

Miss GASPERSOHN My buttocks were bruised for nearly 3 weeks, and it also caused me to hemorrhage. I was on my menstrual cycle at the time, and it caused me to hemorrhage for the next 2 days.

Senator SPECTER Internal hemorrhaging?

Miss GASPERSOHN External.

Senator SPECTER Did you see a doctor?

Miss GASPERSOHN Yes, I did.

Senator SPECTER And what diagnosis did the doctor make?

Miss GASPERSOHN Well, he gave me estrogen to stop the bleeding, and as a result of the bruises that he saw, he contacted Social Services and charged child abuse on the assistant principal. He is the county medical examiner for child abuse cases.

Senator SPECTER The doctor that you went to see was the assistant county medical examiner for child abuse cases?

Miss GASPERSOHN He was the county examiner for child abuse.

Senator SPECTER He was the examiner for child abuse cases, and he filed a child abuse complaint against the school official who inflicted the whipping?

Miss GASPERSOHN That is correct.

Senator SPECTER And what happened as a result of that?

Miss GASPERSOHN Social Services just told him that they could not be involved in school cases, that only if a parent had done that would they be able to intervene.

Senator SPECTER So Social Services said that they could intervene if a parent inflicted the whipping, but not if a school official inflicted the whipping?

Miss GASPERSOHN That is correct.

Senator SPECTER Did they give any justification for that that you know about?

Miss GASPERSOHN Not that I know of. There is no agency that can investigate a charge of child abuse against a public school teacher. The board of education locally is the only agency with authority to investigate.

Senator SPECTER What happened next on the sequence, Shelly?

Miss GASPERSOHN We went to the county school board and asked to have the assistant principal disciplined and to try to change the policies on corporal punishment so this would not happen to other children. They investigated, and a few months later, told us that they had found no wrongdoing on his part.

Senator SPECTER They had found what?

Miss GASPERSOHN That the principal had not done anything wrong; that that was policy.

Senator SPECTER The school board made that determination?

Miss GASPERSOHN Yes, sir.

Senator SPECTER That it was school board policy that he was acting under, and he had done nothing in violation of existing school board policy.

Miss GASPERSOHN That is correct.

So, in May 1982, we brought a suit against the Harnett County School Board and Glenn Varney, the assistant principal.

Senator SPECTER You filed a lawsuit.

Miss GASPERSOHN Yes, sir. My parents filed that lawsuit, and I took it over in October 1982, when I turned 18. And it did not come to trial until December 1983. At that time, we had a week-long jury trial. The judge did not allow the medical examiner to testify, his findings on child abuse. He had the jury out of the room at that time and disallowed that information to be heard. And after about 10 minutes of deliberation, the jury found no wrongdoing on the part of the school board or the assistant principal.

Senator SPECTER Mrs. Gaspersohn, how did you feel about all this?


Mrs. GASPERSOHN I was completely devastated. To think that an honor student, on the first violation of any rule in the twelve and a half years of her life to that point, would be treated so severely was just beyond our comprehension. We just could not even talk about it, it was so hurtful--it still hurts to talk about it.

Senator SPECTER Your daughter, Shelly, had always been a model student--


Senator SPECTER (continuing). And had never broken any of the school rules?

Mrs. GASPERSOHN Never; not once.

Senator SPECTER And when did you first find out about the infraction of missing school for the single day?

Mrs. GASPERSOHN I found out about it that day. I was contacted at work by the female assistant principal of the school. She asked me where Shelly was, and I told her that Shelly was at school. I had seen her leave. And she said, “No, she isn’t there. We have checked, and she is skipping school.” I said, “Well”--I guess I was kind of flippant about it--I said, “I guess she is human after all,” because as I said, until that time, she had never, ever done anything wrong in school.

And the assistant principal said, “What do you mean?”

And I said, “Well, I skipped school once. It scared me to death when I did, but I think most people have done that.”

And she said, well she had never.

And I said, “Well, do not be concerned about it. My husband and I will certainly deal with the problem.” And I went home early from work that day, at the time Shelly would normally come home from school. And she was there, and I asked her where she had been, and she told me that she had skipped school, and where she had been and what she had been doing.

So my husband and I grounded her for 2 weeks for that infraction of the rules.

Senator SPECTER What did you do to her for 2 weeks?

Mrs. GASPERSOHN We grounded her.

Senator SPECTER And what do you mean by “grounding” her?

Mrs. GASPERSOHN She could have no privileges. She could only go to school and to church and carry out the normal functions--

Senator SPECTER When you say “no privileges”--no dating, no movies?

Mrs. GASPERSOHN No dating, no movies.

Senator SPECTER Was she dating at that time?

Mrs. GASPERSOHN Yes, she was, sir. She was a senior.

Senator SPECTER So, you suspended her from privileges for 2 weeks, and you felt that that was an appropriate parental response to what had happened?

Mrs. GASPERSOHN I certainly did, and I still do.

Senator SPECTER Did Shelly complain to you about what was happening to her when she was suspended during the course of school and could not keep up with her work?

Mrs. GASPERSOHN Yes, sir, she did.

Senator SPECTER But she did not discuss with you the alternative of the whipping?

Mrs. GASPERSOHN After the second day of being in In-School Suspension and not receiving her assignments, yes, she did say that she had an alternative of taking corporal punishment. And we told her not to do that.

Senator SPECTER And the next thing you knew, she had made the decision on her own, and had taken it?

Mrs. GASPERSOHN Yes, sir.

Senator SPECTER Mrs. Gaspersohn, do you think there is any circumstance under which school officials would be justified in inflicting corporal punishment on students for any kind of student misbehavior?

Mrs. GASPERSOHN I used to think that they had that right, but after experiencing the trauma that it can create, I have changed my mind completely about it.

Senator SPECTER Can you be a little more expansive in describing the trauma which this incident did create for your daughter and your family?

Mrs. GASPERSOHN Well, I could not look at Shelly without crying--ever. (Pause.) Excuse me.

Senator SPECTER Take a minute, Mrs. Gaspersohn

Mrs. GASPERSOHN I felt responsible, myself, for putting her into a situation where she could not be protected from being beaten up. When children are in school, you expect that there is a possibility that they can be beaten up by another child. But to have that same thing happen, in the name of education, by a grown man, who looks like a weight-lifter, who has a very overdeveloped upper body, and see her under the stress and tension--and what she has not told you is that right after this happened, she had a complete personality change. She did not want to go to school. She did not want to go to church. (Pause.) I am sorry.

Senator SPECTER Take your time, Mrs. Gaspersohn, take your time.

Let me ask you, Shelly, while your mother composes herself for just a minute, why did you feel that way? Why did you undergo that personality change, as your mother has just described it, refusing or not wanting to go to school, not wanting to go to church?

Miss GASPERSOHN Well, as far as school goes, I just lost interest. I felt like it was not a learning place anymore, that it was more of a prison than it was education.

Senator SPECTER How about church?

Miss GASPERSOHN I do not know. It was really strange. But Sunday school was a classroom atmosphere. I just stopped doing many of the things I used to do--going out, going to church, and teaching flute. I even stopped doing that for a little while.

I had nightmares a lot.

Senator SPECTER Tell me about that.

Miss GASPERSOHN Well, between the time of the beating and, well, for the next 3 years, I have had nightmares about the principal and the assistant principal, not necessarily hitting me, but I had some nightmares of them chasing me and trying to kill me.

Senator SPECTER Have those nightmares stopped?

Miss GASPERSOHN Well they have stopped for the most part.

Senator SPECTER Have you snapped out of your period of depression, so to speak, and you are back at church, back in school? You are doing all right now?

Miss GASPERSOHN Yes, I have, but I do have those nightmares every once in a while. It’s hard to say when they do--

Senator SPECTER You went ahead and finished your high school career, though, you graduated?

Miss GASPERSOHN Yes, sir.

Senator SPECTER And what are you doing now?

Miss GASPERSOHN I am now majoring in electronic engineering.

Senator SPECTER Where?

Miss GASPERSOHN At Wake Technical College in Raleigh, NC.

Senator SPECTER Mrs. Gaspersohn, tell me just a little bit more about your shift in thinking from the time, as you describe it, where you had felt that corporal punishment was appropriate, to the change occasioned by what happened to your daughter.

Mrs. GASPERSOHN Well, I always assumed that corporal punishment would be inflicted on a child of mine in the same manner that I as a parent would have inflicted it. And I found that not to be true. And, as I started to say, Shelly also started having neck and back spasms, muscle spasms, and she required medical attention.

Senator SPECTER This immediately followed the whipping?

Mrs. GASPERSOHN Immediately following, yes. And she had never had any trouble.

Senator SPECTER How long did that last?

Mrs. GASPERSOHN It has lasted intermittently for the past 3 years.

Senator SPECTER Does it still bother you, Shelly?

Miss GASPERSOHN Just when I get tense or am under stress.

Mrs. GASPERSOHN Mostly when she is talking about what happened to her.

Senator SPECTER Well, thank you very much for this testimony.

Shelly, what is your view on corporal punishment? Had you ever thought that it would be appropriate in a school setting for school officials to discipline a child by whipping?

Miss GASPERSOHN Yes, I used to. But like I say now, there isn’t any way to protect children in school, I do not think, especially when the local school boards act autonomously in writing their own rules for corporal punishment.

Senator SPECTER What do the other students in your school think about these whippings?

Miss GASPERSOHN I really could not tell you.

Senator SPECTER How about the other girls who were disciplined the same day you were?

Miss GASPERSOHN Well, one girl testified for me in my trial, and I think she may have not really thought about it since it happened, and when she was on the stand, she broke up.

Senator SPECTER Did anybody sustain permanent injuries as a result of being hit by the board, to your knowledge?

Miss GASPERSOHN Well, mentally, is the only thing I know. The other girl who testified for me, I know she is under great stress.

Senator SPECTER Is there anything you care to add, Mrs. Gaspersohn?

Mrs. GASPERSOHN No one really is concerned about the safety of children in North Carolina schools. North Carolina has 144 autonomous boards of education.

In 1981, Gov. Jim Hunt appointed a “Governor’s advocacy Council on Children and Youth” to investigate school discipline policies in North Carolina (see enclosed report):

Fifty eight percent of the 144 school boards responded to the council’s questionnaire;

Twenty three percent of those responding did not have codes of conduct which conform to requirements of the law;

Sixty six percent did not have complete written policies on corporal punishment;

Sixty percent allow principals to suspend or corporally punish students for violation of rules imposed only by that principal and not the school board;

It does not surprise me that children are abused by teachers when there are no laws to restrict such abuse;

Parents who complain of abusive treatment are harassed and intimidated by school officials and their loyalties are questioned by much of the community; and

A California survey in 1984 showed that for every [illegible] families who went to court over corporal punishment or other abuse, 63 were stopped at the school board level and 535 were mollified by the superintendent. [Source: Wilson Riles Jr. “Administration of Corporal Punishment in the California Schools” California State department of education 1974.]

No such survey has been conducted in North Carolina, but from my own experience of how they tried to intimidate us as well as my own knowledge of things that have happened to others, I would say that intimidation in North Carolina runs even higher. That, coupled with the fact that no agency except the local school board can investigate a charge of child abuse against a teacher makes them totally beyond the reach of the law that regulates rules on other child abusers. Case law in North Carolina (State v. Pendergrass 1837) makes a permanent bodily injury or proof of malice the condition for child abuse charges against a public school teacher.

Well, I think that a lot of boards of education have rules and regulations that comply with Federal and State law. They have that in Harnett County. But point by point, in the disciplining of Shelly they ignored every, single, solitary point of the board of education’s rules.

Senator SPECTER And what do you mean by the items that they ignored?


Senator SPECTER What did they ignore in the situation with Shelly?

Mrs. GASPERSOHN Can I read the policy?

Senator SPECTER Go ahead.

Mrs. GASPERSOHN OK. The policy on corporal punishment--and this is taken from page 151 of the Teachers’ Handbook of Harnett County, NC--”The Board, in its support of the use of corporal punishment in disciplinary control prohibits such action as a primary means of discipline. Corporal punishment shall be a secondary resort in the disciplinary procedure after other disciplinary measures have been applied and found ineffective.”

And on that point, this was Shelly’s first infraction, and so it was not a last resort. It was used as the primary means of disciplining her.

“Before corporal punishment is to used, a copy of the school disciplinary code must be provided each student”--so the Student Handbook of the Harnett County schools does not even mention corporal punishment. “That code must be posted in each classroom informing the students of those inappropriate behaviors that may result in the use of corporal punishment.” There was not, in the three and a half years that Shelly attended Dunn High School, any notice anywhere of what measures might result in corporal punishment.

“An adult witness must be present when corporal punishment is administered.” There was no adult witness in the room when she was corporally punished.

“The witness must be informed, in the presence of the student receiving corporal punishment, of the reasons for the corporal punishment.” There was no witness, so there was no informing, either.

“The teacher or principal must provide the parent a written report upon request of the circumstances and events leading up to and including the corporal punishment administered.”

Now, we requested in writing that we have that report, and they finally gave it to us just a few days before the trial, so it was 2 years later. And the really ironic thing of this is that, had Shelly been a boy, she would have been offered a nonviolent alternative to In-School Suspension.

Senator SPECTER Such as what?

Mrs. GASPERSOHN Raking leaves. And I have here--

Senator SPECTER But since she was a young woman, she was not given the alternative of raking leaves?

Mrs. GASPERSOHN Yes, sir. I have here page 36 of the deposition of Glenn Varney, starting at the 13th line, when our attorney asked him: “Is there any way to get out of In-School Suspension other than taking the paddle?”

ANSWER. “Yes.”

QUESTION. “How is that?”

ANSWER. “To my recollection, we let the students out for--male students out for, raking leaves as an alternative punishment.”

QUESTION. “Were these girls offered this alternative?”

ANSWER. “Raking leaves would go under chores around the school. But the only thing I can remember is raking leaves.

QUESTION. Were these girls offered this alternative?”

ANSWER. “No, because it’s not good practice to put girls out on--you just don’t do it.”

Now I can say that Shelly has raked leaves since she was old enough, tall enough, to handle a rake. She does it very well. I think that is definitely sexual discrimination. The whole thing has been so unfair.

Senator SPECTER Mrs. Gaspersohn, do you have any thought as to why you lost your lawsuit?

Mrs. GASPERSOHN Oh, yes.

Senator SPECTER Why?

Mrs. GASPERSOHN Because the judge was very biased in his treatment of the case.

Senator SPECTER Do you think there was an error in excluding the doctor--

Mrs. GASPERSOHN Oh, most definitely.

Senator SPECTER Did you consider taking an appeal from the judge’s ruling?

Mrs. GASPERSOHN It has been appealed.

Senator SPECTER Oh, it is under appeal now?

Mrs. GASPERSOHN Yes, sir it is.

Senator SPECTER And that is pending?

Mrs. GASPERSOHN It was filed October 1.

Senator SPECTER So it is going through the supreme court of North Carolina--or the appellate court?

Mrs. GASPERSOHN The appellate court, yes, sir.

Senator SPECTER Is there anything you would care to add, Shelly?


Senator SPECTER Do you agree with your mother that you were a good leaf raker?


Senator SPECTER All right. I thank you very much.

See related:
Good Old-Fashioned Discipline The experience of Shelly Gaspersohn at Dunn High School, Harnett County, North Carolina From: Reading, Writing and the Hickory Stick, By Irwin A. Hyman, Lexington Books, 1990, October 17, 1984
Don't Inflict My Pain on Others, By Shelly S. Gaspersohn, Guest columnist USA Today, October 23, 1984


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