San Francisco Chronicle, January 11, 1999

Oakland Will Be Asked to Declare `No Spanking Zone'--Activist calls for symbolic ban
By Thaai Walker, Chronicle Staff Writer

Jordan Riak wants to turn Oakland into the Bay Area's first ``No Spanking Zone.''

For the past 25 years, the retired Alamo man has crusaded against the act of spanking children. He participated in the 1980s push to end corporal punishment in California's schools. And he's formed his own nonprofit organization dedicated to the issue.

Whenever he sees a parent whack a child in public, he inserts himself into the situation, gives a street-corner sermon and then hands the parent a copy of his booklet: ``Plain Talk about Spanking.''

Now Riak hopes to motivate cities around the Bay Area to come out with a policy against spanking -- a disciplinary act that some view as child abuse no matter how mild the swat, and others consider a legitimate way to keep youngsters in line.

He wants to start in a big city in order to get the most attention. Oakland is 30 minutes from Riak's home in Contra Costa County. It's also a city that is often among the first in the region to take a position on controversial issues -- think medicinal marijuana and ebonics.

On January 26, Riak will bring his ``No Spanking Zone'' idea to the City Council's public safety committee. He isn't asking city officials to pass a law against spanking. Rather, he wants them to commit to a symbolic gesture.

``Physical punishment teaches violence,'' the 64-year-old Riak said. ``It undermines self-esteem, drives out trust and replaces it with fear, resentment and hostility.''

Riak has a ready-made resolution drafted for council members to sign. It denounces spanking and declares Oakland an official ``No Spanking Zone.'' He has also designed a ``No Spanking Zone'' poster that he would like placed in city buildings, parks, libraries and police departments. He envisions a day when ``no spanking'' signs will be as prolific as ``no smoking'' signs.

Whether it be by hand, paddle, belt or switch, spanking is a sensitive issue that touches people at a fundamental level.

Stirring up childhood memories and often igniting fiery debate, it is an issue that calls into question the rights and wrongs of child rearing. For some, there is a clear and definable line between spanking and child beating. For others that line is blurry.

Riak's proposal is sure to inspire Oakland council members and the public to share their own war stories: whether they were or weren't spanked as children and whether they think they are better people because of it.

But a question that is already being asked is whether city government has any business setting policy on what many see as a private family issue.

``Is this really within the purview of the council -- don't they have more important issues to deal with?'' asked Oakland resident, lawyer and City Hall watcher Clinton Killian. Besides, Killian says, ``My mom whupped me and I turned out OK.''

Councilman Nate Miley, who chairs the public safety committee, said he thinks it is a legitimate issue for the council to take up and is leaning toward supporting the proposal. Still, he admits to being torn by it.

``Spanking is the ultimate discipline and there are a number of things you can do short of that,'' said Miley, who says he can count on one hand the number of times he has spanked his two children. ``But unequivocally, a parent has to have control of children and a child has got to respect the parent.''

But councilman and vice-mayor Henry Chang isn't sure he will support the campaign.

``Where do you draw the line -- how do you define spanking? If it's spanking like I got spanked, it's no big deal,'' Chang said. ``I think the line is already drawn by existing law that prevents child abuse. I don't see why we need to go further.''

And City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente said he expects to oppose the proposal.

``I feel discipline sometimes needs corporal punishment,'' said De La Fuente, adding that he was spanked by practically everyone while growing up -- parents, grandparents and teachers -- and thanks them for it today.

``I'm not talking about abuse, but a slap on the butt is nothing that kills anyone. I don't think I would support (the resolution), even if it is just symbolic.''

But on the national scene, Riak's idea is gaining support.

Irwin Hyman, who runs the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives at Temple University in Philadelphia, said although a city resolution opposing spanking won't have the force of law behind it, it would serve as a form of moral persuasion.

``The more we bring this to the public's attention and raise its consciousness about it, the better things will be eventually,'' said Hyman, a psychologist who has testified against spanking before Congress.

Riak doesn't have a degree in psychology, sociology or other behavioral sciences. Before retiring in the mid-1980s, he was a photography instructor.

His advocacy isn't based on any terrible personal experiences -- he wasn't spanked by his parents nor did he spank his three sons while they were growing up.

His crusade against corporal punishment began in the 1970s while living in Australia. He was motivated by the ``horrible Dickensian tales'' his school-age sons would tell about other students who were caned by teachers for misbehaving. He was further incited to action by reading reams of research on the issue written by psychologists.


1. Spanking teaches children two lessons: that hitting people is okay and that violence works.

2. Spanking destroys self-esteem, damages children's ability to learn and sets the stage for future emotional problems.

3. Children learn good behavior by imitating good behavior and respect by being respected. --Jordan Riak

1999 San Francisco Chronicle
Page A13

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