In 1669 an earnest schoolboy presented a petition to the speaker of the House of Commons. "We, the children of the land," it said, "humbly implore an end to corporal punishment in the schools." The legislators ignored the plea, and, in 1698, other schoolboys returned with a collection of case histories which, they promised, "would make a heart of stone bleed." They were wrong. What they called "the foule abuse of children at schools" went smartly on.
England remains one of the few relatively developed countries in which schoolchildren can lawfully be beaten. Among the others are Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and these United States. Poland abandoned the practice as early as 1790, and other European nations, as well as the communist bloc have also gradually outlawed the rod.
In this country, as another school year begins, only seven states forbid the official beating of schoolchildren (Massachusetts. New Jersey, Hawaii, Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and, as of April 1984, Vermont). A good many large cities, from New York to Seattle, and including the District of Columbia, have taken sticks and straps away from teachers and principals. But the beat goes on in smaller towns and in rural areas -- particularly in the South, Southwest and Midwest.
According to Dr. Adah Maurer, a Berkeley, Calif., psychologist and the preeminent archivist of corporal punishment in the schools, the states most likely to have kids so officially battered that a heart of stone would bleed are Arkansas, Florida, Indiana and Ohio. Yet, I have researched vicious, lawful, assaults on schoolchildren in all parts of the country, including some cases in which the kids required hospitalization.
A police officer in upstate New York showed me color photographs of wounds histhird-grade son had sustained from two beatings in one day with a large paddle. The first offense was talking in class when he wasn't asked to and the second resulted in an inadvertent fall over a desk that produced more wicked noise. The cop sued the principal for assault, but since corporal punishment is permitted in the state, the suit was thrown out. "I don't have the right to beat prisoners, and I shouldn't have," the cop said. "But the principal has the right to beat up my son."
In Texas, a father told me of incidents involving his 10- year-old son, dying of a blood disease. The parents had let the boy keep going to school as long as he could so he'd be with his friends. And they told the principal about the boy's illness. Nonetheless, the child was whacked several times, and hard, for talking in class. "There wasn't a damn thing I could do about it," the father said. "They told me they had the right to beat my boy, and there it was, riin the law."
The defenders of corporal punishment say it's a necessary tool of discipline and that stories such as mine are aberrations. I have checked out scores of such "aberrations" over the past 20 years. Once those stronger and in authority are given the lawful right to beat those who are weaker, abuses of that power are inevitable. As the boy who petitioned Parliament pointed out.
It's all quite constitutional, however. In Ingraham v. Wright (1977) the Supreme Court declared that corporal punishment in the schools, even when severe, does not violate the Eighth Amendment prohibiton against cruel and unusual punishment.
I had thought that case would have made every justice weep. Two assistant principals had held the arms and legs of James Ingraham, a junior high school student in Dade County, Fla., while the principal hit the boy more than 20 times with a wooden paddle (two feet long, four inches wide, one- half-inch thick). Young Ingraham's offense had been his slowness in leaving the stage of the school auditorium.
The hematoma resulting from the beating put Ingraham in bed face down for a week. But after all, he hadn't been paralyzed. Another student at the school was hit alongside his left eye with a belt buckle by an assistant principal. That boy required hospital care. Neither student could have been legally assaulted had he been in a juvenile detention center or jail.
More state legislatures might end this way of inculcating the values of barbarism into the public schools if the nation's two largest teachers' unions made clear that their members are too professional to have to beat their students into submission. The National Education Association has indeed expressed its disapproval of corporal punishment, but does not keep track of errant members who keep swinging away. And the head of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker, takes a local-option view of the matter. If a city or town wants its children assaulted as part of their education, Shanker won't object. Would he take the same position on collective bargaining rights?
In 1853 the Indiana Supreme Court noted: "The public seems to cling to the despotism in the government of schools which has been discarded everywhere else. . . . the husband can no longer moderately chastise his wife; nor . . . the master his servant or his apprentice. Even the degrading cruelties of the naval service have been arrested. Why the person of the school boy . . . should be less sacred in the eyes of the law than that of the apprentice or the sailor, is not easily explained."