GROVETON, Texas – Three solid whacks with a wooden paddle.
That's all it took to make a little boy's bottom bleed.
His mother said it was a beating.
His doctor said the bruises were "consistent with traumatic injury."
His school trustees said it was a matter of policy. And they would do it again.
Despite a decades-long grassroots effort to ban corporal punishment in schools, many districts – including some in the Dallas area – allow teachers or administrators to paddle students to keep discipline in the classroom.
The district attorney in East Texas' Trinity County is preparing to ask a grand jury this month to decide whether the injuries 11-year-old Justin Causby suffered were serious enough to charge his gym teacher with felony injury to a child. Justin's parents say they plan to sue the district in federal court for violating his civil rights.
"You send your kids to school for an education," Lynn Causby said. "My son was wearing green boxer shorts. You could see blood through his underwear."
The Causby family has received letters and phone calls of support from across the country.
But state laws aren't on their side. According to the Texas Penal Code, the use of nondeadly force against a child by a teacher or administrator is justified to "further the purpose of education or to maintain discipline in a group." While educators are not permitted to use "excessive" force, they are granted immunity by the state from liability and disciplinary action when they follow district guidelines.
In Justin's case, the Groveton Independent School District determined that his gym teacher did not use excessive force despite evidence of a bruised, red and swollen bottom.
"It was investigated thoroughly and seriously, and we found that he did not violate any policy, so nothing was done," said Superintendent Joe Driskell.
State supports district
The district's findings were supported by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which determined that the incident did not meet the statutory definition of abuse or neglect.
"Corporal punishment is allowed," said department spokesman Geoff Wool. "If it's done in a measured, nonviolent way, it's not considered abuse."
Mrs. Causby disagrees.
"What he did to my son is wrong," she said. "It has been going on in that school too long. There's a problem over there."
Mrs. Causby said Justin had never been in trouble. But on the fourth day of fifth grade, he couldn't keep up with the other children running laps. When he explained to his gym teacher that his asthma was acting up and he couldn't breathe, the teacher told Justin to pick up stray sticks in the schoolyard, break them in half and put them in a pile. Mrs. Causby said another student heard her son mutter "he sucks" under his breath and told on him.
The Causby family has gotten support from a network of advocates, academics and associations pushing for an end to corporal punishment in U.S. schools.
"When you look at national statistics, school districts that use corporal punishment tend to have lower education levels, higher truancy rates and higher measures of violence and vandalism," said Nadine Block, a retired school psychologist and director of the Center for Effective Discipline, a nonprofit group based in Columbus, Ohio.
Corporal punishment in schools has been banned in 28 states and more than 100 countries, Ms. Block said. But it is widespread in Texas, she said.
Texas ranks seventh in the nation for the percentage of students who are physically disciplined. Because of the size of the state, that's 22 percent of all students who are paddled in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.
The practice perpetuates a cycle of violence, Ms. Block said.
"The more kids are hit, the more likely they are to hit their spouses and children" she said. "It has to end somewhere, and it should end in the school district."
Matters of student discipline in Texas fall under the jurisdiction of the state's 1,037 school boards. About 50 districts in Texas have banned corporal punishment while at least 293 districts allow it only when parents have given permission. But there is no state requirement for schools to get parental permission, said Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.
"Local control and community standards apply," she said.
The state confirmed 33 cases of physical abuse in schools in 2003.
Corporal punishment is still used by the Dallas Independent School District, although parents now must ask for it in writing.
"Houston has outlawed it, Plano has it but doesn't use it – it's almost like Dallas is stuck in the Dark Ages," said Martha Stowe, director of the Injury Prevention Center of Greater Dallas, which lobbied to ban corporal punishment in the DISD.
Ms. Stowe said she didn't get far arguing that paddling was bad for students. So she's shifted tactics and is now telling educators that paddling could be bad for schools because of liability issues.
"This lawsuit [the Causbys say they will file] may be the very thing that turns it around," she said.
Groveton school district officials said they will continue paddling students, even if some parents ask teachers not to. Getting rid of corporal punishment would lead to a "decline in our class discipline," said Mr. Driskell, the superintendent. Leaving the decision up to the parents would create an unfair system where students would receive different punishments for the same offense, he said.
"The board supports it and wants to keep it," Mr. Driskell said. "It's something a lot of parents still believe in."
District Attorney Joe Ned Dean says corporal punishment needs to be used more often in schools. But after investigating the Causby case, he said it's best to let a grand jury determine whether the teacher, who has left the district for what officials said was a better job in another town, used sufficient force to be charged with the felony of injury to a child.
"You can have a spanking or you can have a beating," he said.
On the advice of his lawyer, the teacher involved declined to comment.
Ask people in Groveton what they think of corporal punishment and they'll give similar answers.
"I was spanked and I think I turned out OK," said Bobby Read, a volunteer at a local food bank. "There has to be a consequence to what they do."
Janine Maxfield's 11-year-old son, Melvin, has never been paddled. But she expects her 5-year-old, Cody, will be once he gets to school.
"If he needs it, sure – within reason," she said. "Don't leave a mark on them. One or two swats, that's OK."
How much is too much?
What about the Causby case?
"That's too much," said Wanda Read, who volunteers with her husband at the food bank. "That's abuse if a child is paddled to the point where they're bleeding."
Mrs. Maxfield said she would sue if one of her children came home bleeding from a paddling.
Alma Allan, a State Board of Education member who is running without any major party opposition to succeed veteran Democratic Rep. Ron Wilson of Houston, plans to introduce a bill to ban corporal punishment.
"I've seen too many children abused in my 14 years as a teacher and 16 years as a principal," she said. "It is barbaric."
Though previous attempts failed, Ms. Allan said she hopes she will have more success.
"The times have changed," she said.
In the meantime, Mrs. Causby will be sending her son to school in a neighboring district.
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