Mom for ban on corporal punishment in schools
By Rebecca Catalanello, Staff Reporter
Mobile Register, July 18, 2001

DEMOPOLIS -- The second time it happened, 7-year-old Jonathan Curtis didn't tell his mother about the paddling he got at school.

Michaela Curtis said she didn't learn about it until she saw the bruises at bath time. The photos she took show red welts and dark bruises on the first-grader's bare bottom.

"No one sent a note home, no one called me, nothing," she said.

Now, the registered nurse and Demopolis mother of four has launched an effort to try to get her local school board to change its policy allowing corporal punishment.

Her campaign has caught the attention of the national media and leaders across the state. It has helped to once again bring the issue of corporal punishment in Alabama's schools to the forefront.

Mobile County school officials began the same battle last week when two board members and Superintendent Harold Dodge said school paddling is outdated and makes them vulnerable to legal challenges and misuse. Three other school board members, meanwhile, say corporal punishment is a needed disciplinary option.

Mobile's board was expected to talk about the issue during a special meeting set for 1 p.m. today.

Stories of infamous school paddlings are not hard to find:
The parents of a Zwolle, La., fourth-grader who arrived home with bruises on her buttocks recently sued school officials after hospital workers labled the incident an assault requiring a police notification.

A St. Clair County, Ala., mother made national news in the late 1980s when she was sentenced to jail after assaulting a principal who she said paddled her child against her expressed wishes.

A Dade County, Fla., 14-year-old was held face down over a conference table in the 1970s and got 20 licks for being late, breaking a glass in shop class and then resisting getting paddled -- a case that resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of corporal punishment in schools.

The Dade County school board banned student paddling despite that decision.

"It's just not worth what can happen," Mobile County Principal Sharon Upton said, reflecting on her decision not to allow it at John Will Elementary in west Mobile.

"It's just too risky."

Support low, but many schools permit it:
When asked, many educators -- locally and in other parts of Alabama -- said they agree that paddling should be a last resort or not used at all.

Still, the last count showed that most of the state's 128 systems permit it. And the latest numbers from the U.S. Department of Education show Alabama students were paddled at the third-highest rate in the country in 1997-98.

Alabama is in the minority.

Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia have banned corporal punishment. Numerous national organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Bar Association, American Medical Association, National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of State Boards of Education, the National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of School Nurses have issued statements supporting banning school spankings.

Alabama groups supporting a ban have included the Alabama Association of PTAs and the Alabama Association of School Boards.

"It can be easily misused or abused," said Pat Guyton, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center in Mobile.

There's no way to measure how hard a child is spanked, how many licks a child should get and under what circumstances they should be administered, he said.

"Generally, I'm opposed to people other than parents using corporal punishment, because it can easily get out of hand. Very quickly, it can go from discipline to abuse."

Discipline or abuse?:
Michaela Curtis said that until March 27, she had no problem with the school system's policy of spanking children.

In fact, a school discipline specialist called her the day before to tell her Jonathan had been picking his nose after being told not to. He had been disruptive and ignoring instructions from his teachers, the specialist said.

Michaela Curtis said she offered to go in and paddle the first-grade advanced placement student herself. The administrator declined, she said, and told her she would give the child a paddling, and she gave him three strokes of the paddle on his backside.

The next day, it happened again -- but that time no one contacted Jonathan's family -- and the result was bruising that lasted two weeks, Curtis said.

The 7-year-old said he counted eight licks to his rear as he was holding his knees. In a subsequent letter to Michaela Curtis, Demopolis Superintendent Wesley Hill confirmed that a teacher's aide and Jennifer Lay, the behavior management specialist at Westside Elementary School who administered the paddling, called Jonathan into her office later in the day to see if the paddling left marks.

They "lifted his shirt and pulled back the elastic band on his trousers just enough to check his side or hip, not his buttocks," he wrote in a June 5 letter.

Regardless of the reason, Michaela Curtis said, she's upset that administrators would, as Jonathan described it to her, pull down his pants.

"There was no evidence from observation that Jonathan suffered pain and discomfort after the corporal punishment was administered," wrote Hill, who could not be reached for further comment.

"All children need discipline," Curtis said. "My problem is not that he got spanked. It's the frequency with which he got hit -- eight times -- and the strength with which he was hit."

Curtis wants her local board to amend its policy allowing paddling to at least require parental notification every time it is administered. Her story is expected to air on television's "Inside Edition" in September, she said.

Opponents say there are other ways of disciplining children that don't involve inflicting physical pain.

In-school and after-school suspensions are options, they say.

Blount High School Principal Dorothy Cooley said one way the Prichard administration deals with disciplinary issues is to assign children to after-school work detail -- cleaning up school grounds at the side of a custodian.

"If you can get them to respond without physical punishment, I think any reasonable person would say that's probably better than corporal punishment," said Hoover City Superintendent Jack Farr. In its 13 years of existence, the Birmingham-area system has never allowed corporal punishment to be used.

Psychologists such as Nadine Block of the Center for Effective Discipline suggest spanking can send mixed messages to students by validating the use of physical force.

But Den A. Trumbull, a Montgomery pediatrician, has written for the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council in favor of parents spanking children.

In an article titled "Spare the Rod?" he challenged critics and cited a poll conducted for the conservative policy organization in which four of five Americans who said they were spanked as children called the discipline effective.

"That's the way I was raised. That's the way my children were raised, that's the way my grandchildren are raised, and if I had great-grandchildren, that's how they would be treated," Mobile County school board member John Holland said, registering his opinion on whether the system's corporal punishment policy should be done away with.

Holland said that as long as Alabama law allows schools to paddle children, he will stand behind the practice.

Fellow members Lonnie Parsons and David Thomas also have said they believe there is merit in corporal punishment in some instances and it should be available to educators.

Thomas and Parsons said they might be agreeable to requiring parental permission before principals can spank children. Holland, meanwhile, said such a requirement would simply bog down a principal's day.

"Every time you add to the principal's list of things to do, it becomes more complicated for him to do his job," he said.

State law protects teachers:
Mobile County school officials said they counted 781 instances in which school officials used corporal punishment last year. Baldwin County reported 543 paddlings.

Sue Adams of the state Department of Education said the state only this year began requiring school systems to report such data, but she doesn't expect the numbers to be fully compiled for another month.

Adams said her department has received numerous requests for the figures in the past few years.

The U.S. Department of Education reported that in 1997-98 there were 457,754 students subjected to school paddlings -- about 1 percent of the total U.S. public school enrollment.

Alabama law not only allows the corporal punishment, a provision added in recent years gives educators immunity from lawsuits, provided they gave the paddlings in line with their local policies.

Michaela Curtis said she sees the law establishing a double standard: Teachers who detect unusual bruises on children's bodies are required to report suspected abuse to authorities, while parents who see the same thing on their children as a result of educators disciplinary procedures get little to no back-up from the law.

"I don't believe that black and blue means abuse only if a parent does it," Curtis said.

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