COLUMBUS | Teachers, principals and other school workers would be allowed to paddle, isolate and otherwise discipline students without the fear of being sued by angry parents, if pending legislation becomes law in Ohio.
The Ohio House has already voted, 81-18, in favor of a bill sponsored by state Rep. Keith Faber, R-Celina. This fall, the Senate will consider the measure.
The bill would grant civil immunity to anyone working in a public or private school for disciplining students as long as the discipline doesn't rise to the level of child endangerment or abuse.
The bill has the support of the Ohio Education Association, but is opposed by a long line of parent groups, child advocates and others, including the Ohio PTA, Ohio School Psychologists Association, Action Ohio Coalition for Battered Women, Prevent Child Abuse Ohio, Ohio Association of Child Caring Agencies, and the ACLU of Ohio.
Twenty-eight states ban corporal punishment in schools. Ohio leaves it up to the local district. The state passed a law in 1993 banning corporal punishment unless school districts go through a number of votes to keep it. Just 26 of Ohio's 617 school districts permit corporal punishment.
In those districts, fewer than 500 students were hit in 2001-02 compared with 68,000 hit in Ohio public schools in 1983-84, according to the Center for Effective Discipline Inc., a Columbus-based nonprofit opposed to corporal punishment at home and school.
Nadine Block, a former school psychologist and the director of the Center for Effective Discipline, said the fear of lawsuits led most school districts to ban corporal punishment so granting civil immunity would lead some teachers and school boards to want to return to paddling.
Districts would still need to approve corporal punishment policies. But even without a policy, teachers could not be sued by parents or students for physical or other discipline — short of child endangerment — if the Faber bill becomes law.
Thomas Lasley, the University of Dayton's dean of Education and Allied Professions, said the bill, while on its surface looks like a good solution to unruly classrooms, could invite more problems.
"Most teachers act responsibly but you'd have some who would say, 'Hey, I can do what I want,' " Lasley said. Instead of giving teachers more power and latitude, they need to be taught how to better handle misbehavior, he said.
Northmont High School language arts and Spanish teacher Dawn Wojcik sees the bill differently. "This is not a law that gives teachers greater license; it gives them more protection," she said.
Faber said the bill has nothing to do with paddling, and that corporal punishment opponents are using the legislation to draw attention to their cause.
Block said if it's not a pro-paddling bill, why wouldn't lawmakers exempt corporal punishment from actions that get civil immunity.
Faber said a recent Harris Interactive poll showed 80 percent of teachers engage in "defensive teaching" to avoid lawsuits. Teachers aren't taking disciplinary action even when they think it's merited, he said. This makes it more difficult to maintain order and compromises education quality, Faber said.
He decided to offer the bill when a speech and drama teacher, fearing she would be sued, wanted to hire him as her attorney. Faber said the teacher kicked a student out of class for heckling classmates and the parents threatened to sue. A lawsuit was never filed.
"Certainly there is the ongoing specter of people saying they are contacting an attorney and looking into legal recourse. That's there," said Centerville Superintendent Frank DePalma. But, he said, no one has followed through with a lawsuit about student discipline in recent memory in the 8,000-student district.
"It's just difficult to measure that classroom teachers and principals refrain (on discipline) because of the fear of a frivolous suit will come of it," he said.
Jim Sommer, a retired elementary teacher in Versailles, said teachers are routinely threatened with lawsuits and need some sort of leverage with students. Unruly students take away instruction time from other children, he said.
Sommer said he used corporal punishment early in his 35-year teaching career.
"It got the attention of the student. I'm not saying you have to beat the child but a hand on the seat gets attention," he said. Civil immunity would not apply if the discipline amounted to child endangerment, which is defined as discipline or physical restraint that is cruel or prolonged under the circumstances and poses a substantial risk of serious physical harm or impaired mental health or development, the bill says.
"Child endangerment — that's still off limits. The children are still being protected but it gives the teachers and administrators some leeway in how they handle discipline," said Sommer, who testified in support of the bill.
Faber said a paddle print on a child's buttock probably wouldn't qualify as child endangerment but a broken arm might.
Block said physical discipline is undefined in the bill so it's unclear if tying kids to chairs, locking them in closets or washing their mouths with soap would be permitted. Also, Faber's bill applies to anyone working in a school, said Block, who saw paddling injuries while working at a pediatric hospital.
"Most teachers don't try to injure kids. But there are always a few. So when you have a law that gives such wide immunity to everybody with no descriptions of who can use it, no descriptions of what the limits are, that creates an atmosphere where bad things can happen," Block said.
Contact Laura A. Bischoff at 614-224-1624.
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