Texas-Sized Controversy Sheds Light on a Barbarous Practice

Springtown High School, a school near Fort Worth, Texas has recently wandered into a major controversy. Sophomore Taylor Santos was accused of allowing a fellow student to copy her work. Rather than take in-school suspension, Santos agreed to be paddled. According to her mother, when Taylor returned home, her rear end looked as if it had been “burned and blistered.” Now, it was downright stupid for Taylor’s parents to sign off on her being paddled, even though they apparently thought a woman would be doling out the punishment, as opposed to the male vice principal who ended up being the one to do it. And while at least the policy allows students the choice of taking a non-violent punishment, the practice of incentivizing children to submit to physical violence is deplorable. For those who are unaware, 19 states do not have a law prohibiting teachers from performing corporal punishment on students. Last year, Representative Carolyn McCarthy proposed a bill that would allow the secretary of education to withhold federal funds from school districts that use corporal punishment. The bill included a clause stipulating that if a student’s behavior posed a serious, immediate risk of physical injury to themselves or others, school officials have the right to use physical restraint. Arguably the most prominent cosponsor of McCarthy’s bill was Barney Frank, one of my favorite Congressmen. One thing I noticed about the cosponsors of this bill is that most of them came from states in the North and West. This is no surprise, as corporal punishment has long been a more common form of discipline in the South with both teachers and parents. Perhaps more disconcerting was that not a single Republican cosponsored the proposed bill. Historically, some of the major milestones made against teacher-imposed school violence have been made with the help of Republicans. New Jersey and Massachusetts were the first states to pass bill banning corporal punishment in public schools, and both of these bills were signed by Republican governors. At that time, however, the Religious Right had not cinched in the death grip on the GOP that it has today.  What does the Religious Right have to do with spanking? While the issue takes a back seat to other debates such as school prayer and gay rights, the Religious Right is solidly in favor of corporal punishment. Mike Huckabee, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson are all on record as supporting corporal punishment. A list of quotes from conservative Christians supporting the practice would probably fill more than one blog. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family,[1] is as far as I can tell one of the only psychologists who actually favor corporal punishment of children. He once wrote, “It is not necessary to beat the child into submission; a little bit of pain goes a long way for a young child. However, the spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause the child to cry genuinely.” I kind of think that making a child cry legitimate tears of pain constitutes beating them into submission. He also suggests that if the crying lasts too long, it may become necessary to threaten to hit the child again! Of course, this is the guy who thought Dungeons and Dragonswas satanic, that homosexuality is caused by a poor relationship with one’s father and can be cured, and that pornography caused Ted Bundy to become a serial killer, so what do you expect? Advocates of corporal punishment are on their strongest ground (though still, I would submit, incorrect) when they claim that the government should not interfere with the way a parent disciplines their child. However, allowing public schools to spank students is actually giving more power to the government, something that conservatives claim to hate but often seem to love. On another note, a frightening statistic I read stated that students with disabilities are considerably more likely to receive corporal punishment, illustrating the brutality of the system. Since I realize that many of my readers probably favor corporal punishment, perhaps in school as well as in the home, I would like to tackle some common arguments:

1. “Nothing else works!”

It is ironic that many of the people using this argument are conservative Christians, because it seems to deny absolute morality. If an action constitutes abuse (which I will get to later), then the moral absolutist would say that it is always wrong. Apparently moral relativism isn’t just displayed by liberals. Furthermore, the slope that this statement sets up is dangerously slippery. Let us say that, after deciding that all other methods of discipline have failed, a teacher decides to paddle a student on the buttocks. What if that fails to stop the misbehaving? Will the teacher then be justified in delivering a blow to the skull?

2. “Kids were better behaved in the days when schools could spank them!”

This is a widespread argument in favor of stricter discipline in general. Let us not forget that children raised in the “tough love” environment of the 1950s rebelled by forming the hippie movement. If the discipline style of that era was so great, why did so many people brought up with it end up smoking pot and collecting food stamps? Furthermore, corporal punishment cannot be empirically linked to better behavior. While I often disagree with conservative, homophobic parenting columnist John Rosemond, he did make an intelligent point when he criticized physical discipline in schools by stating, “I was schooled in the suburbs of Chicago, where even in the 1950s paddling was not allowed. Nonetheless, the schools I attended were not brimming with discipline problems,” Back in 2001,Time did an article lamenting that in the view of the writer, Nancy Gibbs, the present generation of children and teenagers was spoiled rotten. However, Gibbs almost grudgingly conceded that, “Today’s teenagers are twice as likely to do volunteer work as teens 20 years ago [30 years ago as of now], they are drinking less, driving drunk less, having far fewer babies and fewer abortions, and committing considerably less violence.” This demonstrates a flaw in the “Ending Corporal Punishment Creates More Brats” narrative. In order for people like James Dobson to be correct, corporal punishment would have had to have been more common in the early 1980s than it was in the early 2000s, something I find very unlikely.

3. “The Bible Says It’s Okay!”

Perhaps the most well known Bible verse used by supporters of corporal punishment is Proverbs 13:24: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son; But he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” The phrase “Spare the rod, and spoil the child” is not in the Bible but instead comes from a Samuel Butler poem about sexual intercourse. One thing that is important to recognize is that the Bible was written in a time when children were often regarded simply as farm hands and evidence of successful breeding rather than as human beings to be loved and cherished. For instance, Exodus 21:22 stipulates that if two men are fighting and injure a pregnant woman, causing the baby to born early (which would almost certainly kill the fetus, given the limited medical technology of the era), the men must pay a fine. If, however, the woman is seriously injured or killed, “an eye for an eye” would come into play. Those looking to find a biblical basis for any legal restrictions whatsoever on child abuse are on shaky ground. Consider that while Old Testament law provided for the execution of children who cursed, disobeyed, or struck their parents, there were no punishments in place for severely beating children. It should also be remembered that it was a much more violent time period. “And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished. Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money [property].” Of all of the arguments for corporal punishment, Bible verses are probably the worst.

[1] The name pretty much guarantees that it is homophobic. Almost every organization that has the word “family” in its name has a beef with gays.


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