When a group of schoolchildren filed into the Wyoming State Senate gallery on February 12, 2003, they were expecting an enriching experience. They were about to witness democracy in action. As it turned out, the performance fell far short of expectations. One of the pieces of legislation under consideration that day, HB 68, dealt with the right of schoolteachers to inflict corporal punishment on students. In practice, corporal punishment in schools typically consists of requiring a child to bend over and present his or her backside for a beating with a flat wooden board. The authors of HB 68 had hoped their bill would end the practice. After approval in the House by a comfortable 48-10 margin, its trajectory abruptly changed in the Senate.
"Itís definitely a bill looking for a problem thatís not there," said Senator Curt Meier, R-LaGrange. Senator Bill Hawks, R- Casper, caused some of his colleagues and some in the audience to break into laughter when he said, "I got my fanny paddled on a fairly regular basis and, Madam Chairman, look how good I turned out." Then they voted. The count was 15-15, and HB 68 was dead.
After the vote, Senator Keith Goodenough, D-Casper, unable to stifle his feelings of outrage, remarked that a handful of students sitting in the gallery had just watched the legislature authorize their teachers and principals to beat them. He was then ordered by Majority Floor Leader Grant Larson, R-Jackson, to apologize for misusing the privilege of the Senate floor. Senator Bill Vasey, D-Rawlins, said he felt offended by Senator Goodenoughís remark. And a chastened Senator Goodenough apologized for using the word "beat."
But what is corporal punishment other than "to beat"? How does one differentiate one from the other? What dictionary does Senator Vasey use? It seems that only in that Kafkaesque twilight zone that often engulfs public debate on this subject can someone be required to apologize for saying the truth.
The outcome surely would have been different had the senators instructed their aides to spend a few minutes on the telephone to get some expert advice from, say, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association or the American Psychological Association. Had they done that, at least they would have entered the debate prepared.
Had the legislators done their homework, they would have learned that little boys who are battered often will strive to imitate their batterers and yearn for the day when they are big enough and strong enough to dish it out. They would have learned that little girls who are battered are being persuaded that they are worthless and deserving of such treatment, and thereby are being set up for abuse later by boyfriends, husbands and employers. Had they bothered to examine the evidence gathered by researchers over the past half century about the effects of corporal punishment, they would have learned that it is a high-risk behavior, and evidence for its benefits is nonexistent. Had they inquired into the case histories of the most dangerous incarcerated felons, they would have discovered that in virtually every case corporal punishment was the management method of choice by the subjectís early caretakers. Had they spent a few minutes on the telephone with any competent reference librarian, they would have learned that pupil beating has for some time been outlawed in most of the Western civilized world, and that once gone, it is never restored. Correction: Germany, briefly during the Nazi period, reinstated school corporal punishment. And had they not lacked the ambition or curiosity to do an hour or so of educated Web research, they might have observed that a number of social pathologies, ranging from crime to illiteracy to sexually transmitted diseases, are most concentrated among states and localities which continue to allow paddling.
But, alas, the effort wasnít made. No book was cracked, no library visited, no phone calls placed, no Web searches done. Apparently, what little HB 68's opponents knew about the subject they had learned at their motherís knee Ė or across it. And that told them everything they wanted to know.
What did the Wyoming Senate accomplish by its failure to pass HB 68?
Parents of schoolchildren were denied the reasonable expectation that their children would return home from school undamaged. Those parents deserve an apology.
A low standard for teacher behavior was set, thus betraying the dedicated professionals who strive to maintain a high standard. Those teachers deserve an apology.
The schoolchildren of Wyoming were denied the fundamental human right to be safe from assault and battery. Those children deserve an apology.
As for the children who watched the performance from the Senate gallery on February 12, they especially deserve an apology. What they witnessed was not fit for innocent eyes.
Itís apology time, honorable senators. You may begin now.
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TO THE NEWSROOM?