Star-Telegram, August 9, 1999

The State of Paddling
By Jessie Milligan, Star-Telegram Staff Writer

There she is, 36 years old, an art teacher and cheerleading coach, sitting outside the office of Ron Johnson, principal of E.B. Comstock Middle School in southeast Dallas. Johnson goes into his office and closes the door. Beside her sit several children awaiting punishment.

Johnson doesn't come out of his office.

He's trying to control me by demeaning me, she thinks.

Sandy Lee, a Fort Worth woman with 10 years' teaching experience, had just told Dallas school district officials, Dallas police and television reporters that E.B. Comstock Middle School was a place where wooden paddles were used to beat violence and cruelty into the next generation.

On that day in 1995, perched on a child-sized chair waiting to see the principal, Lee had plenty of time to contemplate the source of her anger and fear.

She says some of her colleagues at the school routinely were herding 40 to 50 students at a time into the cafeteria, hitting the children with 4-foot-long wooden paddles. She says that some paddles had holes drilled in the wood to make them swing faster, and that the paddlings came for even minor infractions.

Later, a judge writing an opinion in a court appeal described E.B. Comstock as a place where being tardy could result in tears; talking in class, blisters. Young skin could ache with tender purple and blue spots, all for throwing wastepaper toward a trash can and missing.

"I was hit when I asked for a bathroom break," said one boy, now 16, who was a student at E.B. Comstock and asked that his name not be published.

The former student said one teacher paddled all students who asked to go to the bathroom during class, then made them sign the paddle. Once, he said, he was paddled so hard that it left a blister.

Lawsuits brought by Lee under the Texas Whistleblowers Act and by at least four students at E.B. Comstock Middle School were filed in Dallas District Court in March 1996. The Dallas school district will not comment on the lawsuits or the status of any of the employees named in the suits. It has fought the suits in court stating they were improper because they were filed before administrative appeals were exhausted.

Corporal punishment in schools is legal in 23 states, mostly in the South.

The South remains not only the Bible Belt but also the Spanking Belt, a place where "spare the rod, spoil the child" is taken literally, and, sometimes, in the worst case, to extremes.

It's those extremes that worry school administrators. This summer, the Fort Worth school board agreed to abolish paddling, effective this school year. The Dallas school district is debating the use of paddling, and has launched focus groups and surveys to determine whether paddles have any place in schools. Most large, urban school districts, such as those in Houston, Austin, San Antonio and El Paso, have stopped hitting students. About half of the districts in the Metroplex still allow paddling. (See below)

U.S. Department of Education statistics show paddling in America has been diminishing steadily over the decades, abandoned by state law or by school district policy. Texas remains a state where corporal punishment is legal.

More than 114,000 children are paddled in Texas schools each year, more than anywhere else in the nation, according to statistics kept by the Office of Civil Rights, a part of the U.S. Department of Education.

The state's ranking comes not just because it is a populous state. In a per capita count, Texas ranks fifth in the nation for states where students are most likely to be spanked in school.

State law, under the penal and education codes, says only that deadly or excessive force shall not be used in schools. The Texas Education Agency has no policy on spanking. Instead, under the banner of local control, each of the state's more than 1,000 school districts decides how, and if, it should paddle its children.

The Texas Legislature occasionally has debated paddling, but hasn't set a statewide policy.

When legislators defend paddling, they tend to point out that they were paddled in school and that it didn't harm them.

"Paddling in school certainly helped me maintain the right focus. Pain has a way of helping develop focus," says state Rep. Harold Dutton, 54, a Houston Democrat who serves as the vice chairman of the Public Education Committee.

"I don't advocate beating. But I don't believe corporal punishment helps students become violent. If it did, me and my friends would be a bunch of mass murderers," says the former football player from Phillis Wheatly High School in Houston.

Arlington lawyer Howard Rosenstein holds another view.

In July 1996, Rosenstein, one of the attorneys in the E.B. Comstock case, appeared on `The Phil Donahue Show' to talk about corporal punishment.

Rosenstein said he believes the E.B. Comstock case may be the one that finally -- and officially -- gets paddling banned in Dallas.

"Hundreds of millions are spent on educating our kids, and they tell us the best system we have includes beating them?" he asks.

Rosenstein says he believes paddling teaches all the wrong lessons. He says it teaches children to resolve conflict through violence. It teaches abusers and potential abusers that it's OK to beat. It teaches children that government operates through tyranny, not democracy. It demoralizes good teachers, and allows bad ones to use force rather than reason.

"The word discipline comes from the word disciple. That means teachers can best discipline children by being role models," Rosenstein says. "Good teachers maintain order without forcing students through indignities."

Lee believes indignity was part of the school culture at E.B. Comstock Middle School. She was hired there in August 1995. It didn't take long for her to recoil at the degree and frequency of punishment she says she saw.

She says she was saddened as well. The school's population comes from a low-income neighborhood with many recent immigrants. Many of the students were getting their first taste of American authority.

"The first image I got in my mind when I saw it was one from the days of slavery. It was an issue of control," Lee says.

In her deposition, Lee describes Principal Johnson walking into her classroom and yelling at her in front of students. Why couldn't she just accept it? There's a reason to paddle students.

"That's the way we do it in Dallas. That's the way we've always done it," the deposition quotes Johnson as saying.

Lee says things started happening at school. Sneaky and mean things. A picture of a turkey was put up on her door. Her bulletin board displays disappeared. No one would sit with her at lunch. Things got worse. Lee says three teachers told their students that they should beat up the art teacher. The students told her instead, she said.

Affidavits signed by E.B. Comstock students confirm Lee's reports, and Johnson, the former principal at the school, acknowledged in newspaper accounts that the school made frequent use of corporal punishment, including paddling 40 to 50 students at a time for offenses including tardiness.

Johnson said he wasn't aware that school district policy called for parents to be notified before their children were paddled. He also said he wasn't aware paddlings were only to take place in private, in an administrator's office.

Lee says she resigned because of the atmosphere of violence at the school.

The whereabouts of the former principal and two teachers named in the suit are not known because DISD will not release information on their status.

Lee started work at an Arlington grocery store last month. In her lawsuit, she asks that she be re-instated as a teacher in the Dallas school district.

She says she would like to teach again. She says she likes to see students excel and that she believes it can be done without paddling.

"It takes a little more ingenuity. You have to pay more attention, but there are ways to manage behavior without hitting."

If you don't want your child paddled

Check with your child's school to see whether it has a form letter that you can submit to be kept on file. If not, write your own letter. This sample was composed by the National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment, which recommends submitting the letter even if the district doesn't want to honor your wishes.

Dear (Principal's Name),

Our family does not believe that schoolchildren should be disciplined by paddling. We believe that it sends children the message that hitting people is a way to solve problems. We know that our child will make mistakes. When that happens, we hope you will help our child learn what is appropriate behavior and how to act more appropriately in the future. If you are having a problem with our child, please contact us and we will make every effort to come to school to help you. Please do not paddle our child.



Student's Name Address

Phone number

The rules
About half of the school districts in the Dallas/Fort Worth area have banned paddling. Where paddling is allowed, school officials say it is seldom used, and when it is, they require:

Compiled by Jessie Milligan

The state of paddling nationwide

Ten states where paddling was most common in the 1994-95 school year (the most recent year surveyed):

1. Arkansas: 56,262 students paddled (13.4 percent of student population)
2. Mississippi: 55,102 (10.9 percent)
3. Alabama: 30,541 (7.3 percent)
4. Tennessee: 44,842 (5.3 percent)
5. (tie) TEXAS: 114,213 (3.4 percent) (tied with)
5. (tie) Georgia: 42,398 (3.4 percent)
7. Louisiana: 26,323 (3.3 percent)
8. Oklahoma: 15,765 (3 percent)
9. South Carolina: 9,995 (1.6 percent)
10. Missouri: 13,178 (1.4 percent)

Source: U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights

States that have abolished paddling in schools: Alaska, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia.

States where more than half the school districts have banned paddling include: Arizona, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida.

Source: National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment, Columbus, Ohio

Compiled by Jessie Milligan

Jessie Milligan, (817) 390-7738

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