Corporal punishment: is it discipline or violence?

When a 6-year-old girl in Ft. Myers, Fla., mispronounced a few words in class one day, her first-grade teacher spanked her with a half-inch-thick paddle. Her parents brought suit against the teacher, charging child abuse, but last month a jury found him innocent. In defending the jury's decision, one female juror told a reporter, ``I don't believe the man intended to hurt that little girl, to abuse her. He spanked other children and nobody complained. Maybe she just bruised easily.''

By now the bruises have gone away, and this very young student has probably learned to pronounce those words correctly. But in the process she has learned another, non-academic lesson: that adults -- not only parents but teachers, too -- have hitting privileges.

To spank or not to spank? The question has long divided parents, educators, and others who care about children. A University of New Hampshire poll last year found that 88 percent of parents with children between ages 5 and 8 spanked them. Most states prohibit or severely restrict the use of corporal punishment in preschool facilities, but permit it in grades 1 through 12. Only eight states -- New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Hawaii -- forbid the use of physical pain in disciplining students.

The issue is being highlighted as Child Abuse Prevention Month is observed during April.

Defenders of the practice view it as a disciplinary measure sometimes necessary to maintain order and respect. ``It's not meant for every child,'' says Charles Ford, principal of Henry Elementary School in Tucson, Ariz. ``Some children respond to other techniques of discipline. But there are a very few children you cannot seem to get through to unless you get their attention. That's why I'm for a range of discipline techniques.''

Noting that his school district is one of three in the Tucson unified school district that does not allow corporal punishment, Dr. Ford says, ``One of the major discipline techniques we use here is suspension of children. I am very opposed to the suspension of elementary-age children. I think it establishes a very bad precedent. When they get to junior high they get the attitude, `It's good -- I like to be out of school.' I would like to see corporal punishment only as a last resort, only with the consent of the parents. And it should be monitored very closely.''

Gregory Kuhns, an assistant principal in Fairmont, W. Va., offers a similar viewpoint. ``Sometimes, when everything else has failed, we use it. We'd rather keep children in school than suspend them, so we can continue their education. We use it very, very sparingly, but it's still nice to have as an option. We have to notify parents 12 hours in advance, so that alleviates a lot of problems.''

But as child abuse continues to make daily headlines, opponents argue that using physical punishment on schoolchildren constitutes a double standard.

``Schools are fingerprinting little kids and looking out for [signs of] sexual abuse and physical abuse,'' says Richard J. Gelles, a dean at the University of Rhode Island and the author of a recent study on violence against children. ``They're trying to protect children, and at the same time they're a training ground for the use of physical violence when they use corporal punishment.

``The message of a big person hitting a little person is not going to be lost on children,'' he continues. ``It's much more powerful than watching G.I. Joe on TV. What they know is that when big people get mad at little people, it's OK for big people to hit them. That's not a great message if you want to reduce violence in society.''

Yet changing that message often proves difficult, according to Adah Maurer, executive director of End Violence Against the Next Generation, a 14-year-old organization in Berkeley, Calif., which seeks to abolish corporal punishment in all states. One of the greatest challenges, she notes, now comes from religious fundamentalists.

``Child-abuse professionals have been at a loss to know how to counter the noisy statements from fundamentalists claiming that God said adults should beat children,'' she says. ``These sects are very loud about it, and very determined that they are going to try to break down state regulations against the use of paddling and other physical punishments in nursery schools.''

Even when no physical pain is involved, children may be harshly punished in other ways. ``Some of the alternatives,'' Dr. Maurer observes, ``are almost as bad as the hitting -- locking children in dark closets for extended periods of time, for example. One gym teacher bound a child's feet and hands with tape and put him in a closet. He told the boy the closet was full of scorpions and snakes, and said, `I hope they bite you.' The child was left there for several hours.''

In cases involving physical punishment, some parents, like those of the 6-year-old girl in Ft. Myers, register their outrage through lawsuits. Dr. Maurer estimates that each state has an average of 40 or 50 cases in courts at any one time. But she explains the difficulty parents face in winning these suits.

``The judges in the courts will determine if it was an assault on the basis of whether or not it was done out of malice,'' she says. ``The child's family must prove that it was done for the purpose of hurting the child. That's impossible. All the administrator has to say is that the child disobeyed school rules and needed to be disciplined -- that this is legal and there was no anger or malice intended. So most cases are lost on that basis.''

Even so, Dr. Maurer is heartened by what she sees as signs of progress.

``Although not too many states have made laws abolishing corporal punishment,'' she says, ``individual school districts are either abolishing or tightening up restrictions. By requiring parental approval, requiring a witness, and prohibiting its use as a first resort or for a first offense, they are carefully hedging the use of the paddle. That's happening all over.''

Another alternative, she says, is the use of ``time out -- a modern version of making a child sit in the corner. But the best solution, of course, is to earn the respect of the children by making a big pitch toward school loyalty, providing a relevant curriculum that meets the needs of the school, and offering counseling or special help for those children who are troubled by conditions at home, such as abuse, parents getting a divorce, an older brother or a father in jail. Such a child needs counseling and understanding. Not permission to act badly, but a great deal of consideration and help by the school.''

On April 26 the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse will highlight alternative disciplinary measures, at home and at school, during ``National No Hitter Day.'' Under the theme ``Be a hugger, not a slugger,'' the event aims to teach parents and others to discipline children without physical violence.

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