Thursday, August 29, 2002

Fear of suits slows paddling in schools

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press

        COLUMBUS - Paddling of schoolchildren is dropping in Ohio as much because of the fear of being sued as changes in society's view of spanking.

        A recent opinion by Attorney General Betty Montgomery clarified that corporal punishment of a schoolchild is not considered child abuse under state law, if “reasonable and necessary force and restraint” is used.

        In Ohio, 443 students in 30 districts were paddled in the 2000-01 school year, down from more than 700 students in 43 districts in the 1998-99 school year, according to Department of Education statistics analyzed by the Center for Effective Discipline, a Columbus-based anti-paddling organization.

        “I think a number of educators are very concerned about the fact that people are ready to sue,” said Frank Kemerer, an education law professor at the University of North Texas who studies corporal punishment in schools nationally.

        A growing concern that minorities receive a disproportionately high number of paddlings is also leading to a decrease in the practice, Mr. Kemerer said.

        Although the U.S. Supreme Court in 1977 upheld the constitutionality of corporal punishment, subsequent rulings by other courts have made schools shy away from the practice, say both opponents and proponents.

        Many districts cite a 1989 Virginia Supreme Court ruling that held a district liable because a girl collapsed during a paddling and was rushed to a hospital, said Robert Surgenor, a retired police detective in suburban Cleveland and author of the self-published book supporting corporal punishment, No Fear: A Police Officer's Perspective.

        In the Bloom-Vernon school district in southern Ohio, paddling is permitted but rarely carried out, said Superintendent Paul White.

        Nadine Block, executive director of the Center for Effective Discipline, counts lawsuits as one of several factors leading to the decline of paddling.

        “More and more research has piled up that it's not worth the instant obedience you might get for the risk you take, whether the risk of litigation or the risk of hurting the child or the risk of creating a violent child who might grow up and hit his own children,” Mr. Block said.

        The spanking of children by their parents is also declining, Mr. Block said.

        A 1999 poll by Prevent Child Abuse America, a Chicago-based nonprofit group, found 41 percent of parents said they spanked their children, down from 58 percent in 1988.

        In the recent attorney general's opinion, the Madison County prosecutor asked Ms. Montgomery to define the responsibilities of a children's services caseworker when investigating a school administrator's punishment of a child.

        The case involved an incident “in which a student struck the administrator and the administrator struck the student back several times,” according to the ruling.

        Prosecutor Stephen Pronai wanted to know what a caseworker needed to consider before deciding whether the administrator's action was child abuse.


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