Jordan Riak's letter of November 3, 2001 to the Washington, D.C. School Board

Washington, D.C. School Board
825 N Capital Street, NE 9th
Washington, D.C. 20002

To the members of the Washington, D.C. School Board:

I am writing to express my strong reservations about the proposed rule 2403 to allow "corporal punishment" in "limited situations."

There is a fundamental difference between after-the-fact punishment and self-defense. When the distinction between the two is blurred, a great deal of official misconduct, including blatant child abuse, can and will be legitimized. If this rule is adopted, the board will surely find itself in the awkward position of having to reconcile acts of teacher violence, mislabeled "self-defense," with the original intent of the corporal punishment ban. You can't have it both ways. You can't forbid a practice and allow it simultaneously.

The following example from Ohio is illustrative. A school principal was recently fired for assaulting a student, and the case is now in court. The school district in this case had just such a murky "corporal punishment/self-defense" policy as the D.C. Board is now considering. According to press reports, the principal restrained and repeatedly struck a small boy allegedly after the boy tried to kick him. The principal claimed that his actions were a "self-defense response to an emergency." (This principal had in fact been reprimanded on other occasions for hitting students.) He seemed to simply ignore the school policy against corporal punishment whenever it suited him, and when questions arose, he explained his acts as having been "emergency responses." This time the board didn't buy it. It rejected his claim that the infliction of physical punishment on the child--a deliberate and calculated act--somehow fit the definition of "self-defense." To do otherwise would have required a leap of logic they weren't prepared to make.

If the Washington D.C. School Board believes that the ritual of corporal punishment serves some useful pedagogical purpose, then it should argue that position honestly on its merits rather than veil it in a debate about farfetched hypotheticals.

For your information, corporal punishment of students has been categorically rejected by educators worldwide. Not one European nation permits it. Not one teachers' professional association is lobbying for its reintroduction. Not one teachers' college instructs undergraduates how to corporally punish students. In the fields of child development and mental health, corporal punishment is overwhelmingly rejected. Nevertheless, there are still some misguided educators who are unable to relinquish old habits. Maybe they enjoy hitting children. Maybe they don't know how to manage children without using violence. Maybe they are frightened by having to modernize and hanker for a return to the old days of their childhood. Whatever the case may be, they are the ones with the problem.

The Washington, D.C. School Board is correct in striving to establish high standards for student behavior. This will never be achieved, however, by lowering standards for teacher behavior and creating legal loopholes for incompetents.

Jordan Riak, Exec. Dir.
Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education (PTAVE)
P.O. Box 1033
Alamo, CA 94507

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