Teachers Can Spank Kids Black and Blue

Nov. 8, 2002 -- Michaela Curtis went straight to the hospital and police when her son came home from school with dark bruises on his behind. But what she learned was the people who hurt her 7-year-old had every right to do so: They were his teachers.

Teachers in Alabama's public schools still have paddles. And whenever a child misbehaves, they can chose to apply that "board of education" to the "seat of learning." It is state law, and some 40,000 Alabama schoolchildren were paddled last school year.

Michael White, who is a lawyer for Alabama's state Board of Education, says paddling is one of the tools to help ensure children get a good education.

"We want a good classroom experience in Alabama," White says. "And if teachers have to resort to forms of discipline, we expect teachers to do that."

In 1995, Alabama lawmakers put the paddle in teachers' hands. The state passed legislation allowing corporal punishment in public schools, and gave local school boards wide discretion as to how and when the discipline should be administered.

Too Hard?

But Curtis, the mother of two children in the Demopolis, Ala., school district, says the state does little to prevent teachers from hitting too hard.

Last year, Curtis says her 7-year-old son came home from the second grade with large, dark bruises on his rear end. Jonathan Curtis was paddled for picking his nose in class. How many licks he received are in dispute. Michaela Curtis, a registered nurse, says her son's bruises were so severe that she immediately took him to a local hospital.

"When I filed the police report at the hospital that night," Curtis says, "I asked the officer, 'What would happen if I did this to my son?' And the police officer said that most likely, my child would have been removed from my custody that evening."

Curtis says what angers her even more is what happened the day before. She says she specifically instructed the school not to lay a finger on her child if he misbehaved, and no one listened.

"They should not have paddled him at all for that 'crime,'" Curtis says. "They should not have paddled him without my consent."

Paddling Allowed

But according to district policy, which is supported by state law, a Demopolis public school teacher can paddle a child, even when a parent says no. The school district superintendent, Wesley Hill, investigated the incident and concluded that the spanking was justified and Curtis had no case.

"A child can be spanked even after the parent expressly refuses to consent," Hill explains. "It's not an opt-out system."

Across the country, 23 states allow this type of discipline in public schools. Spanking is heaviest in the South, so much so, that psychologists who oppose spanking say it gives new meaning to the phrase "Bible Belt."

Kevin Dwyer, with the National Association of Psychologists, says there's plenty of research to show this is harmful to children.

"Alabama allows corporal punishment," Dwyer points out. "New York does not, New Jersey does not, Maryland does not. Those states have higher achievement scores, higher graduation rates."

But Dwyer admits that no one is certain whether it is spanking that makes the big difference. In fact, a close look at the trend to outlaw spanking and the trend of increased violence in schools and at home suggests spanking may not be as harmful as its opponents claim.

Peter Sprigg, of the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., says that today's teachers need paddles as a tool.

"Studies do show that spanking both at schools and at home have declined significantly in recent decades, and yet I don't think we see any improvement in the behavior of our children," says Sprigg.

"Most Americans would agree that we have more problems in our schools and in our homes caused by permissiveness," Sprigg continues, "than … by excessive discipline."

Alabama and other states that still use paddles have a generation or two of former schoolchildren on their side. Most Americans over 30, and most former parochial school students, can probably testify that spanking might not have felt good, but did produce students who were better behaved.

Michaela Curtis still feels spanking is archaic and barbaric, and if she could, she'd sue the school and the teacher who spanked her child.

But that pesky state law is in her way, once again. Teachers are immune from prosecution, so she can't find a lawyer to take her case.