No state spare-the-rod rule; decisions left up to districts
By Matt Schwartz
Indianapolis Star, July 31, 2001

When Christopher Goodnight was caught fighting at Sheridan High School, the principal gave him a choice between three days of suspension or three whacks with a wooden paddle.

Christopher picked the paddle. His parents later took him to the emergency room, where a physician found 3-inch-square bruises across the 15-year-old's buttocks.

A grand jury indicted the principal, Al Youmans, for criminal recklessness. A judge threw out the charges, saying that Youmans was authorized by the legislature to deliver the whacks, and that authorization protected him from criminal prosecution.

More than five years later, thousands of Hoosier students could find themselves in Christopher's predicament, kept out of school to heal from blows sanctioned by the laws of the state. State law affords educators the same rights as parents -- "to take any disciplinary action necessary to promote student conduct that conforms with an orderly and effective educational system."

"We used it because it was an official, state-approved punishment," remembers Youmans, who is now retired. "We thought it was effective."

Indiana is one of 23 states that allow corporal punishment in schools. About 2,000 students a year are physically disciplined, according to the most recent data from federal educators.

Legislative attempts to curb corporal punishment have not been successful in Indiana, although more and more national groups are rising in opposition to spankings, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, National PTA and the National School Boards Association.

"I'm not at all opposed to discipline. Every child needs discipline," said Rep. John Day, D-Indianapolis. He's attempted to ban physical punishment several times. "There are just far better ways to do it than by showing children that you can solve problems with violence."

Day said he is encouraged by individual superintendents and principals who are sparing the rod on a local level. Of the 14 public and parochial schools in his district, 10 principals have told him they do not allow teachers to strike students under any circumstances.

Students at Sheridan High no longer choose between spankings and suspensions -- the district has implemented its own ban.

The Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents agrees corporal punishment might not be the best method of dealing with today's student but thinks the issue should be left up to local school boards and principals.

"When I was a kid, there were some misbehaviors for which you fully expected to get whacked. If you got whacked at school, then you'd get whacked twice at home," said Roger Thornton, the organization's executive director.

But, he said, schools must adjust disciplinary methods to keep pace with what's going on at home.

"When corporal punishment is utilized at school but questioned and not supported at home, then its effectiveness is questionable," he said. Indianapolis Public Schools has detailed rules about how paddlings are delivered and reported. The paddle may be no larger than a half-inch thick, 4 inches wide and 18 inches long. Students may not be restrained. Administrators are required to try to contact parents in advance and honor parental requests to deliver the punishment themselves.

Parochial schools are similarly advised by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis to avoid corporal punishment but have leeway to set policies on a school-by-school basis. Children's advocates say that's not enough. "This is an act of violence," said Robert Fathman, a clinical psychologist and president of the National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment in Schools. "It's hitting a child with a board. That gives kids the wrong message, that it's OK to hit someone else when we disapprove of their behavior." It's a message that rings true with Jamyce Banks, principal at Marshall Middle School.

Rather than deal with IPS' complex regulations surrounding corporal punishment, she's given it up altogether. Instead, Banks has her teachers follow a six-step disciplinary plan that begins with students, parents and teachers communicating in writing and can lead to conferences and after-school detention. Spankings are not part of her plan.

"We always try to involve students in a dialogue," Banks said. "(A spanking) is not really an effective deterrent against anything."

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