Faced with strong opposition from residents, Brookline Town Meeting members killed a measure last night that would have made it town policy to urge parents and child-care workers to refrain from spanking children or using corporal punishment as a means of discipline.
The proposed measure, drafted by Brookline resident Ronald Goldman and backed by the Board of Selectmen, would have encouraged alternative disciplinary methods, with mutual respect between parent and child as the ultimate goal.
But Richard Wheeler, a Brookline real estate lawyer and Town Meeting member, made a motion to postpone the measure indefinitely and it was backed by a 105-to-78 vote. He said the proposal extended the scope of what a town meeting should consider.
"This is an issue of personal freedom and personal choice," he said. "I didn't feel it was appropriate for the institution of town meeting to interfere in parental decisions."
Massachusetts is one of 27 states that forbids the use of corporal punishment in public schools. But aside from physical discipline that rises to a criminal level of abuse, there is no law that regulates the use of spanking or corporal punishment by parents.
If passed by the Town Meeting, which consists of 240 elected members and members of the Board of Selectmen, and any state representative or senator who resides in Brookline, the endorsement would have been the first of its kind in the nation, according to Goldman.
Goldman's proposal -- endorsed by the Massachusetts Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Massachusetts Citizens for Children -- would not have instituted a penalty for parents who spank or beat their children. It would have encouraged "thoughtful determination of discipline methods," Goldman said.
But Town Meeting members didn't see it that way last night. Many criticized the wording of the measure, which, they say, made little effort to clarify the difference between physical punishment, such as spanking, and actual abuse. Others said it should not be the town's business to monitor how parents discipline their children.
"This article does not belong before the Town Meeting," Wheeler said.
Physical abuse, under Massachusetts law, includes the beating, shaking, kicking, burning of a child, according to the state Department of Social Services website.
"I would like that we have the option to stand up against physical abuse, but this motion was not carefully phrased so we could intelligently vote on it," said Stephen Daisy, a retired high school teacher. "Let's determine what we are talking about here."
Selectman Michael Sher urged meeting members to respect the democratic process of the town meeting and put the measure to a vote. He also said that "just because something does not rise to the level of a crime, it does not necessarily mean it ought to be condoned."
Studies by the American Academy of Pediatrics have revealed that corporal punishment may hurt a student's self-image and school achievement and contribute to disruptive and violent behavior.
Effective discipline strategies, according to the organization's Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, require a supportive relationship between parents and children, use of positive reinforcement, and restraint from the use of punishment.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.
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