Child Abuse in Our Schools Child Abuse in Our Schools
By Robert Fathman, Ph.D.
Mothering, Winter, 1991

Imagine, for a moment.... Your 10-year-old daughter passes a paper in the wrong direction, and for this infraction of the rules, the teacher slams your child's head onto her desk six times, damaging her inner ear. Or your 11-year-old son misbehaves mildly, whereupon his teacher has each of the other students come forward to strike him twice with sticks. Or your nine-year-old daughter whispers to her classmates that she saw their teacher kissing a parent on an outing, after which the enraged teacher and the principal hold your child upside down by the ankles and strike her repeatedly with a board, eventually breaking it over her legs and scarring her for life.

Shocking tales from a Charles Dickens novel, right? Wrong! None of these stories comes from 19th-century England, where reading, writing, and 'rithmetic were taught to the tune of the proverbial hickory stick. These things are happening to American schoolchildren today. In fact, the details come from courtroom records in Washington, Ohio, and New Mexico, respectively.

Modern-day American education is not as sophisticated and humane as we would like to think. In 29 states, schoolchildren may be--and often are--physically abused to the point of injury, and even further.

Legal Sanctions

"Corporal punishment," a euphemism for the legal assault and beating of schoolchildren, is practiced widely in the United States. Its definitions are so vague and ambiguous that children effectively have no rights or protection against it under federal or most state laws. At the same time, our country has a dual set of laws against child abuse. Parents are held to one standard, while educators are held to a much lighter and more forgiving one. Under this set of laws, school employees can pinch, punch, paddle, and pound children until they are bruised, cut, or covered with welts. Legally, these actions do not constitute abuse. Consequently, we as parents can do little to prevent them or even secure an apology for them after the fact.

Corporal punishment can take many ugly forms. Most commonly, a child is told to bend over and hold his or her ankles while a teacher, bearing a board 2 to 2-1/2 feet long by 1-1/2 inches thick, hauls back and strikes the child three times across the buttocks. Some forms of corporal punishment are more subtle, however.

Michael Waechter

Michael Waechter's parents found out the hard way. A fifth grader at the Eagle Lake school in Edwardsburg, Michigan, Michael was cheerful, active, and well liked in spite of the many adversities he faced. One of his legs was an inch shorter than the other--the result of his bout with meningitis at six months of age. Although he was still wearing a leg brace at 10, his balance was poor and he had a pronounced limp. He was also taking medication for a "learning problem" and had previously had heart surgery. His medical report in the school files showed that he was not to engage in strenuous contact sports and that he should be allowed to pace himself and rest as needed.

One day, Michael was slow to line up after recess. In response, according to his friends, the teacher told him to do "the gut run," which meant running across some rough terrain to a tree and back to the school, a distance of about 1,000 feet. (Students who took longer than two minutes to run the course were routinely told to do it again.) When Michael was told to do the run, he claimed he was unable to; but his protest was ignored, he attempted the run, and he collapsed and died in the effort. School officials said that Michael died while playing touch football during recess, but his fellow students told their parents and newspaper reporters that this was a lie and that Michael had died from the punitive gut run.

When the Waechters tried to affix blame for their son's death, they encountered an all-too-common problem: county and state child-abuse and education authorities refused to investigate, and the local prosecutor refused to press charges. The Waechters have since contacted a private attorney and are considering pressing legal action at their own expense.

Although Michael's story represents an extreme case, injuries of many kinds are plentiful. Statisticians currently estimate that every year, 20,000 American schoolchildren receive injuries at the hands of teachers--injuries serious enough to require medical treatment. (1) All told, if school reports to the United States Department of Education are true, over 1 million children are subjected to corporal punishment by educators during the nine-month school year. (2) Yet, only rarely do courts issue rulings that protect children who have been injured in this manner. And seldom do parents file legal actions. When they do, the parent--and the child--generally lose.

In no other segment of American life is physical abuse legally sanctioned. It is against the law in every state to inflict cruelty on animals. You cannot go out to your backyard or your barn, take a board, and start hitting your cow or pig or kitten or pet dog. The embarrasing inconsistency in our laws becomes clear the moment we realize that the Humane Society can bring charges of cruelty to animals for behaviors that are sanctioned when directed against children in our tax-funded schools. Shouldn't we be treating our children as well as we treat our animals?

Nowhere else in society is it permissible to hit an indefensible person. The military outlawed flogging over 100 years ago, and the Pentagon prohibits corporal punishment in the schools it operates for military dependents. In industry, to strike a subordinate is considered assault, resulting in immediate loss of employment. Nor can hitting be used in prisons or in juvenile detention centers. When we break a law by speeding on the highway, the patrol officer cannot hit us to teach us a lesson.

The nation's schools are the last frontier of human rights. These schools are legally sanctioned forums for teaching children values by forcing them to submit to violent attack. And the laws are written in such a way that they protect the offender and support an "open season" mentality on the rights and health of our children.

Why All the Hitting?

Hitting in schools is used primarily as a disciplinary measure. One study reveals that the most commonly cited reason for paddling is "talking in class." (3) Other provocations include "not conforming to classroom decorum" and "not following directions." One fourth grader in a small town near Houston, Texas, was paddled every day for months because his teacher felt it necessary to "get his attention." She was unaware that at the root of the distractibility that irritated her so much was a subsequently diagnosed learning disability. (4)

Indeed, studies show that children with learning disabilities, as well as children with physical disabilities, receive a far disproportionate share of the paddling currently going on in this country. (5) Minority students and students from poor families come in a close second. (6) Black children, for example, are paddled twice as much as white children. (7)

In many classes, paddling is used to teach respect and to instill a sense of values. The results, however, are quite another story. Students everywhere note that the hitting teaches them to fear adults, not respect them. And reams of research point out that the only "gain" in hitting is immediate compliance with the wishes of the aggressor. In effect, hitting produces no long-term benefits and no internalization of values. What it does produce is a desire to be more deceptive, to develop sneakier behaviors, and to refrain from misbehaving in the presence of the threatening adult. It also produces a climate that destroys concentration, shortens the attention span, and interferes with learning.

Certainly, young students do not always exercise good judgment. In many instances, they may need to be corrected. But rather than demand conformity or react with rigid, punitive controls, educators would do well to learn the art of gentle discipline, the art of responding differently to different behaviors and learning styles. After all, the word discipline derives from the Latin root meaning "to teach"; to discipline does not mean to punish.

Underscoring the general reluctance to seek a new approach are age-old religious arguments in favor of corporal punishment. Propaddling parents and teachers alike are fond of quoting the biblical "spare the rod" passage, in the belief that God is commanding us to strike our children. Actually, these were the words not of God or Jesus, but of King Solomon who, wise though he may have been, is a poor role model. He had many wives, he took numerous concubines, and he fathered dozens of children--one of whom was Prince Rehoboam, a vengeful brute who enslaved and tortured his people. Rehoboam may have been a classic case of the abused child becoming an abuser.

Retun to Forced Exercise as Punishment
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