The Gaspersohns are warm, loving parents who moved from Michigan to rural North Carolina, where they bought a small factory. Both parents might be described as politically moderate, deeply religious, and devoted to their four children.
The Gaspersohns are not permissive parents or radicals in any sense. On some few occasions, they had spanked their children, including Shelly. But their discipline was based on love, patience, mutual respect, and persuasion. Their child-rearing practices were based on New Testament concepts of forgiveness and love rather than the single Old Testament concept of "spare the rod," which seemed to pervade the community where they lived.
Shelly, the youngest of four daughters, was an honor student in her senior year. She had no record of disciplinary infractions. Rather, she was a considerate, well-behaved, deeply religious young woman. She was an accomplished flutist and a member of the all-state band. She enjoyed school and wanted to be a music teacher. She was hardly someone who would require the infamous "last resort." Shelly committed one indiscretion, common to seniors: she and Renee Bynum skipped school for a day. Not being an accomplished truant, she was caught. How was it that Shelly, a girl who never broke school rules, committed a sin worthy of a flogging? Here is what she said under oath during courtroom testimony in response to Renny Deese, her attorney:
Q. Have you ever skipped school before, prior to December 1st?The girls were offered the alternative of corporal punishment or a five-day in-school suspension. In-school suspension at Dunn High School meant sitting with other punishees all day in a monitored room. Theoretically teachers from all classes provide assignments for each day, but teacher cooperation in providing schoolwork is inconsistent. Often students are left with long periods of time in which there are no work assignments. Shelly and Renee accepted the suspension, partly because of the reputation of the disciplinarian, Glenn Varney, the strapping, paddle-swinging assistant principal and football coach.
After several days of in-school suspension, Shelly became worried about keeping up with her precalculus class because she was not being supplied with assignments. School policy allows suspended students to volunteer for three licks with the paddle for each day of parole from suspension. Shelly, Renee, and some other students in suspension volunteered to take their licks from Varney in order to return to regular class. (The defense, the judge in the case, and the North Carolina Supreme Court pointed out that Shelly "asked" for the beating. It is clear that she had no way of knowing how severely she would be hit, but it is clear that other punishments were available by the school's own rules. Her motivation for the request was to get back to her schoolwork, not to receive swift punishment so she could return to a life of crime.)
When Shelly arrived home after the beating, her mother was horrified by the large welts on Shelly's buttocks. An examining physician became so enraged that he filed child abuse charges against Coach Varney. But in North Carolina and many other states, teachers were (and still are) immune to child abuse charges, so the child abuse authorities had no recourse. (Ironically, if Shelly's parents had administered the beating, they would have been liable to charges.)
The Gaspersohns' complaints to the principal, superintendent, and school board fell on deaf -- and hostile -- ears despite the fact that the beating left bruises that lasted three weeks and caused menstrual hemorrhaging and long-lasting emotional trauma. Finally the Gaspersohns hired Renny Deese, a lawyer devoted to civil rights issues, and filed suit against the school and Varney. They made two claims. The first was that "Glenn Varney's violent and forceful striking of the plaintiff. . . required . . . [her] . . . to undergo medical treatment, limit her activities and general enjoyment of life." Compensatory damages of $5,000 were requested. The second was that Varney willfully and maliciously struck Shelly, with the approval of the Harnett County School Board. Here $50,000 in punitive damages was claimed.
The trial took place on December 12, 1983, before judge James Pou Bailey. I was there because I had conducted an extensive psychological evaluation of Shelly and was to serve as an expert witness.
Judge Bailey was a rather rotund gentleman with a distinct southern drawl and manner that suggested, despite the robes, he was really just a good old boy. His familiarity and humor seemed to be expressed for the benefit of the defendants. He was more stern with and certainly indicated some distaste for the legal objections and strategies of the plaintiff. He seemed unwilling or unable to understand my credentials as a licensed psychologist trained in school and child psychology at a major university.
My feelings of dismay were intensified by his charge jury. He discounted my expertise by ignoring my clinical training, research, and practice by indicating I had "a number of courses in educational psychology." And although he indicated that the defendant's expert witness was licensed to practice psychiatry, he neglected to mention that I was licensed to practice psychology.
The problems we faced seem typical of what is wrong with the justice system in many rural areas. In my experience, observed a typical scenario: a de facto ruling oligarchy in the community leaders are associated by family and social and religious ties. The local officials -- including judges, lawyers,' superintendents, law enforcement officers, and prosecutors -- because of their close ties, are able to influence policy, to a greater extent than they might where there are strong coalitions of opposition. Generally these officials back a conservative agenda that, I believe, is resistant to the rights of children.
The Helms Connection
At the time of the trial, I did not know much about the leadership in the community of Dunn. I was more concerned with presenting the clinical information than attending to conversation about the community. I remember the Gaspersohns talking about connections between the judge and an unsympathetic editor of the local newspaper.They also commented on the editor's relationship to Senator Jesse Helms, well known for his support of far right religious ideology.
The connections became clear when I read Hard Right: The Rise of Jesse Helms by Ernest Furgurson, the chief of the Baltimore Sun's Washington bureau and a syndicated columnist. Furguson describes the relationship between Pou Bailey and other members of the right-wing leadership of North Carolina, including Hoover Adams, publisher of the avowedly right-wing Dunn Record; Thomas Ellis, a wealthy right-wing scion; and Helms
In his first column as a writer for the Tarheel Banker, the house organ of the North Carolina Banker's Association, Helms touted his friend Pou Bailey. This was back in the 1950s when Bailey was counsel to the Banker's Association and hosted a poker club. In those early days, the members of the poker club were already beginning to become involved in right-wing political agendas.
Bailey, Ellis, Adams, and Helms became good friends when they worked together to defeat incumbent U.S. senator Frank Porter Graham in 1950. Graham, a former president of the University of North Carolina, presided over that institution's rise as one of the premier southern universities. His support of academic freedom, liberal education, and high-level research gnawed at the hearts of the truly conservative. His support for due process, intellectualism, and liberal thought angered those who represented the small town antielitism element in North Carolina. He represented the beginning of the national wave of liberal thought, the empowerment of trade unionism, and "the first threats to the old system of social and political segregation."
Helms and company supported Willis Smith against Graham in what has been described as the meanest Senate fight in North Carolina. (This was before Helms's recent battle with former governor Jim Hunt in 1984, which pitted the enlightened liberal element of North Carolina against the religious and political right.) The Helms quartet painted Graham as a communist menace who threatened to desegregate the workplace. He was pictured as a supporter of fair employment practices and a harbinger of racial strife. They appealed to the worst racial fears of the Deep South.
This is the background from which Judge Bailey emerged. His old friend, Hoover Adams, has been judged by other journalists as promoting a right wing and biased newspaper. Roy Parker, editor of the Fayetteville Times, said that Adams "made a career of being biased in favor of things he wants." Parker claims that Adams has "this wonderful attitude that 'everybody else is biased and I'm not.'"
Following the trial, one of Shelly's married sisters, in an unrelated event, complained about religious classes that were taught in the Dunn public schools. While the school's own attorney ruled that the classes were unconstitutional, Hoover Adam's paper led a campaign against cancelling the religion classes. Allegations against the Gaspersohns surely encouraged the threats they received against their personal safety. The Gaspersohns finally gave up their business and left Dunn.
Limiting the Testimony
During the trial, the examining physician was not allowed to testify that he had filed child abuse charges; moreover, the judge restricted other testimony in his charge to the jury. After a year and a half of careful preparation and research for the trial and three days of testimony, twelve men and women of Harnett County, North Carolina, rendered a verdict of "not guilty" after fifteen minutes of deliberation. They decided that Coach Varney had not used unreasonable force. Their decision supports the erroneous belief that educators cannot commit child abuse as long as they call it corporal punishment.
The Gaspersohns were radicalized by this experience. Unlike most other parents of children severely abused by educators, they had the financial and emotional resources to continue the fight in the courts. They appealed the case to the Supreme Court of North Carolina, where it was rejected.
Why was it rejected? The law in North Carolina states that "principals, teachers, substitute teachers, voluntary teachers, teachers' aides and assistants and student teachers may use reasonable [emphasis added] force in the exercise of" discipline. North Carolina is now the only state that has a statute forbidding local control of corporal punishment. Based on rulings from 1837 and 1904, North Carolina law holds that "no local board of education or district committee shall promulgate or continue in effect a rule, regulation or bylaw which prohibits the use of [corporal punishment]."
In 1837, in the case of State v. Pendergast, the state supreme court ruled that the whipping of a six- or seven-year-old girl can leave bruises and can be severe up to the point of causing "long lasting mischief." Therefore, any such beating must be inflicted "honestly in the performance of duty."
In their rejection of the appeal of the Gaspersohn jury decision, the contemporary Supreme Court of North Carolina was apparently loathe to base its decision solely on a nineteenth- century ruling and reached forward to the 1904 case of Drum v. Miller in which a child received serious injury as a result of his teacher's throwing a pencil that struck the child's eye. The court exonerated the teacher since the act was "not prompted by malice." Ignoring research, the current North Carolina Supreme Court agreed with the belief that corporal punishment furthers educational goals.
Could the jury or the judge be expected to challenge a legal interpretation of "reasonable force" based on knowledge and beliefs about children and education that were over a century old? These are issues we will explore in this book.
The Gaspersohns' views about children's rights were considered so radical that they were ostracized in their community. They moved to Greensboro, a city known for enlightened attitudes. Ms.
Gaspersohn devotes a significant part of her time to eliminating corporal punishment in North Carolina schools. Shelly gave up any thought of teaching and studied electrical engineering instead. The injustice of the system and the associated psychological trauma had obliterated her desire to become part of the educational establishment. Meanwhile, cases of abuse of children in North Carolina, and many other states, continue. The response in most cases is the same as in Dunn. . .
Punitiveness in American Education:
I cannot begin to elaborate on the personal trauma and anguish my husband and I have felt as parents not being able to protect our daughter." So began the testimony of Marlene Gaspersohn before the cameras, press, audience, and members of the Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice of the Committee on the Judiciary of the U.S. Senate. Chaired by Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania), the subcommittee met to hear testimony about corporal punishment. It was October 17, 1984, and Marlene, despite her nervousness, spoke clearly and emphatically.
In recent times, we have all become aware that there are child abusers in every walk of life. However, not only has their existence in the field of education not been acknowledged, but a haven for such people is provided by law in most states.Painfully Marlene recalled the suffering she felt for her daughter:
The day after her corporal punishment, I took Shelly to Dr. John Smith, Medical Examiner of nearby Sampson County. Not only was Shelly badly bruised, the beating had caused her menstrual flow to turn into hemorrhaging.Marlene's story was beginning to sound like an account of stonewalling: if you can keep the parents at bay long enough, they will eventually give up. It works most of the time when parents have limited resources and fear retribution from the school or people in the community. She continued:
So it was March 1982 before our attorney, Renny Deese, was allowed to make our presentation. . . Up to that time no reference had been made of the other three girls [who were paddled at the same time as Shelly] . . . and I realized it would be all covered up if I did not inform the local press. That is how the notoriety began.After the school board heard the complaints, they said nothing until just before graduation, and then they claimed that Varney had done nothing wrong. Marlene reasoned that the board decided that with graduation behind her, Shelly and her family would drop the issue. Instead they had created a family of angry people who would not give up. A cruel act by a local school administrator and a stonewalling school board propelled a compassionate, loving parent all the way to a congressional hearing. . .
WHEN I first saw Shelly Gaspersohn, two years after she had been severely swatted, she still could not talk about the incident without crying. Despite what the psychiatric expert for the defense said, despite what the jury decided, I knew she was continuing to suffer.
Shelly had not been to war, nor had she suffered the effects of a terrible natural disaster, such as an earthquake or a tornado. She had not been raped or witnessed a murder. Yet she had many of the symptoms of victims who have suffered through those types of traumas. I thought her problem was posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but what I observed in her did not fully conform to the textbook definition.
Child victims of maltreatment such as physical and sexual abuse have received a great deal of attention, but the focus is generally on the physical acts and damage; the psychological results of these abuses have not been well studied. Not only was the research on childhood PTSD practically nonexistent; nothing I could find referred to educator-caused PTSD.
How Children React to Trauma
Most of the scanty evidence regarding PTSD in children is related to exceptional stressors that result in symptoms often similar to but not identical with those observed in adults. The distinctions between adult and childhood PTSD are especially crucial for use in expert testimony when establishing the exact cause of the problems.
I believe that one of the reasons Shelly lost her case was that her swatter was a teacher and coach who was holding up the long-revered standards of rural America; he was not a lurking stranger or sadistic child molester.
I am sure that many people in Harnett County thought that Shelly would have to learn to be tougher. A few swats on the behind could hardly be classified in the same league of stressors such as war, earthquakes, or child abuse. How could Shelly's suffering be compared to that of a Vietnam veteran? In fact, if it is assumed that the stressor in PTSD must be beyond the range of normal experience, this standard is not met in a school where paddlings are common and accepted.
I believe that children are more vulnerable to less extreme stressors than those that may cause PTSD in adults. Children and adults may be equally vulnerable to unpredictable disasters, but children may be more at risk in relation to stressors in society over which they have relatively little control. For instance, increasing poverty, especially in cities, has led to rising numbers of children with symptoms similar to those witnessed in PTSD (Stein 1986). Do the increasing numbers of these children exclude them from a PTSD diagnosis because the traumas that cause the symptoms do not fulfill the criterion of stressors outside the range of common human experience?
Disciplinary excesses of educators provide examples of a wide range of unusual and severe traumatic events over which children have little or no control. Yet many of these stressors such as corporal punishment and verbal abuse are generally not severe enough to cause PTSD. When they are severe, however, the diagnostic and legal results are troubling. The child's ability to deal with the trauma is greatly affected by the interaction and support available from his or her immediate caretakers. If fear turns to anger, the child may retaliate against the teacher or the school. Others model the teacher's aggression and may turn their displaced anger against siblings with whom they formerly had few disputes, or they may start getting into fights at school.
It is clear that many students who initially feel protected and loved in school can be devastated by abuse by their teachers. The impact may be as certain as if their parents had maltreated them.
Parents, teachers, and other caregivers may have trouble understanding children's reactions and not be alert to recognizing stress symptoms. For instance, a group that studied children's and parents' reactions to the Three Mile Island nuclear accident (Handford et al. 1986) found that the parents of the children in the immediate area did not recognize the extent of the anxiety that the children experienced. A group of researchers who studied children who survived the horrors of the Pol Pot massacres in Cambodia (Sack et al. 1986) found that the children reported more distress with school grades, peers, and themselves than was observed by their caretakers. Another study focused on a group of school children who were kidnapped and buried alive in a trailer. They finally dug themselves out and were rescued. In follow-up studies of the effects of the trauma, the parents underestimated their children's reactions; many initially denied their children's need for professional help, despite the growing number of stress symptoms (Terr 1979). Professional evaluations demonstrated that the trauma had significantly affected the children's psychological adjustment.
These examples are beyond the range of normal experience and seem far removed from the kind of stresses that children might experience at the hands of even the nastiest educator. Yet the symptoms suffered in EIPTSD are not much different from those suffered by the children described. Nevertheless, the disciplinary excesses of educators are generally considered too common to cause PTSD.
PTSD in children should be considered within the context of age and a wide range of stressors. A review of current research shows that children of different ages react differently to stress. . .
Testimony of Shelly Gaspersohn to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice, October 17, 1984
Don't Inflict My Pain on Others, By Shelly S. Gaspersohn, Guest columnist USA Today, October 23, 1984
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