Paddling in Schools
Jordan Riak, The New York Times, May 3, 2001

Dear Editor:

U.S. Justice Brandeis (1856-1941) said something about the role of government which I believe is directly applicable to the controversy over teachers' right to batter schoolchildren--a practice still legal in 23 states. (Lawsuits Touch Off Debate Over Paddling in the Schools, Times, 5/3/01)

He said: "Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill it teaches the whole people by example."

If Brandeis were right, then it follows that when the government refuses to protect its most vulnerable citizens from acts of violence, it becomes a partner in the activity. It becomes an accomplice before and after the fact. This makes it, if not the arch bully, then surely the principal ally of countless lesser bullies.

Not many years ago, when spousal battery was legal, wife beaters rationalized their behavior in much the same way spankers do today. One could fill pages with their unctuous, self-righteous, self-serving proofs that the social order depended on the continued right of husbands to "reasonably chastise" their wives. Fortunately, that's changed now. Civilized society has put its house in order (almost in order) on this issue. Every person (almost every person) has an absolute right to the integrity of his or her person. It is no longer permissible to beat wives, sailors, servants, employees, psychiatric patients, suspects under interrogation, or even convicted felons. Only children don't qualify. Since they are not deemed people, they remain beatable.

Until our lawmakers accept the moral responsibility for protecting all members of society from violence, they will, by default, be the models for violence--hardly a respectable role for, in Brandeis' words, "the omnipresent teacher."


Jordan Riak, Executive Director
Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education

See edited version as it appeared in The New York Times (May 5, 2001) at

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