Open letter to California educators about the use of forced exercise as punishment
By Jordan Riak, October 1989

On January 1, 1987, the ban against corporal punishment in California public schools took effect. It defined corporal punishment as, "the willful infliction of physical pain on a pupil," and proscribed it with the words: "No person employed by or engaged in a public school shall inflict, or cause to be inflicted, corporal punishment upon a pupil." As further clarification, the legislation stated that, "physical pain or discomfort caused by athletic competition or other such recreational activity, voluntarily engaged in by the pupil, is not and shall not be construed to be corporal punishment."

We had no doubt that the clearly stated prohibition would be understandable to anyone who read it and that it was weasel-proof. We were pleased when the Department of Education issued its December 23, 1988 Program Advisory to all school districts confirming that every form of punitive pain-infliction is prohibited, including forced exercise.

Certain coaches were not pleased, however, and Superintendent Bill Honig, who had never before made any public comment on the subject of corporal punishment, rushed to do their bidding. Referring to punitive forced exercise, he said "I don't think that's corporal punishment..." He disavowed his department's Program Advisory, stating that he hadn't approved it and that staff had over-stepped their authority.

Where Mr. Honig could have clarified and resolved the issue, he chose instead to back away from it. In the process, he generated a cloud of confusion. Apparently, he has forgotten that coaches are part of the whole educational process, part of the team so to speak, and that the rules apply equally to all players. He apparently has forgotten that the law in question was enacted to protect 4.5 million children served by the system.

But let no one assume that the use of forced exercise as punishment is the monopoly of coaches. That would be unfair and inaccurate. Numerous cases have come to our attention involving teachers other than coaches. Some of these cases involve children who have been ordered to do push-ups in excess of their ability, in front of peers, thereby compounding pain (and risk of injury) with humiliation. Some schoolchildren have been required to run laps to the point of exhaustion. No competent educator would defend such practices. Moreover, the use of exercise-as-punishment has the effect of making some victims shun normal, healthy exercise later in their lives because, in them, it evokes negative, unpleasant memories.

Even though society seems willing to grant coaches -- who are the worst offenders in this regard -- a wider latitude of behavior than would be acceptable for others, California's corporal punishment ban makes no exceptions. It applies uniformly to all employees of the public school system. We do not believe education has been in the least compromised by this restriction. Competent educators, whether in the English class or on the playing field, are able to motivate students in ways that enhance dignity and self-esteem. They have no use for techniques that are demeaning or dangerous.

Also, educators worthy of the name are law-abiding.

We reject the standard rationalization that exposure to coarse treatment by bullying adults instills competitiveness in children thus preparing them for "real life" and to shield them from it is to mollycoddle them. That is propaganda and flimflam. Bad behavior by adults, in school or anywhere else, is bad behavior. Our students deserve adult models for whom no one needs to concoct such excuses.

Mr. Honig's rescinding of the Program Advisory on corporal punishment will have the effect of bolstering the shabbiest of pedagogical traditions--the one which condones and promotes adult bullying of children. His action subverts the clear intention of the legislature and sends a message to certain teachers that they may continue to flout the law, and that blatant cruelty has a place in the educational setting. This only lowers the standard of professionalism within the system. Perhaps this is Mr. Honig's way of currying favor with teachers, especially the ones who ought to be pursuing a different line of work. Lowering standards is not a responsible way for an administrator to win popularity. Mr. Honig should be reminded that the harmonious, optimal development of children is the primary objective of education. That, after all, is why corporal punishment was abolished. He should be working to reinforce and further the process, not undermine it.


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