Ban Spanking at School

Should Colorado legislators ban spanking in public schools? Absolutely.

First my own experience: I grew up mostly in and around the peach orchards of Western Colorado, where my grandfather was a farmer. But then my stepfather went to flight school and started working his way up the pilot seniority ladder—and that meant moving to some less-desirable places. During my grade school years in the early 1980s, we moved to Muleshoe, middle-of-nowhere Texas.

In my pleasant and comfortable Colorado schools, it never occurred to me that teachers or school staff might beat students. It occurred to me in Muleshoe right away—because teachers and staff beat students with wooden boards on practically a daily basis, sometimes in private but often behind a thin screen where other students could hear. Frankly it was terrifying.

I recall one new kid who was a little overweight and perhaps a little dorky. A few of the other kids convinced the new guy to “say ‘toe’ after ‘hoe'”—which of course sounds like a swear word in Spanish. The other kids told on the new kid, and the principal proceeded to beat him for swearing.

I definitely missed home—I have an old photo of myself planting a peach tree in our desolate yard. My strategy at school was basically to keep my head down and not assert myself in any way—and certainly to not ever say toe after the word hoe. I never was beaten at school, yet the practice traumatized me nonetheless.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: If doing something to an adult would be prosecuted as criminal assault, you probably shouldn’t ever do that thing to a child. Certainly if your boss held you down and beat you with a board, the police would and should prosecute your boss for criminal assault. Or imagine what would happen if a school principal grabbed another teacher or a janitor and started beating the person “for his (or her) own good.”

It should go without saying that the Colorado legislature should in no way allow or sanction violence against children by government employees or state-sanctioned childcare providers. We’re not talking here about physical restraint to prevent a student from harming someone, nor are we talking about self-defense a teacher conceivably might take against an aggressive and physically powerful student. We’re talking about beating students who are at the time no danger to others, for alleged disciplinary ends.

Shockingly (to me), Colorado is one of nineteen states that currently allow corporal punishment in schools, although, as a Social Policy Report notes, it’s hardly ever used here. (I’ve never heard of a case.)

Still, the legislature should formally end the practice. Not only will the move help ensure that no child is victimized at school here, perhaps Colorado’s move will inspire legislatures elsewhere, in states where school staff still beat students routinely, to put an end to the practice.

Thankfully, State Representative Susan Lontine, a Denver Democrat, has sponsored a bill to formally end corporal punishment in Colorado schools, 7News reports. It’s a little unclear (to me) just what school staff might be able to get away with in Colorado; a spokesperson from the Colorado Department of Education told 7News that “policies can’t break state child abuse laws” regardless.

Lontine’s bill follows the advice of Education Secretary John B. King, Jr., who called on states to end corporal punishment in schools. King writes, “Notably, the very acts of corporal punishment that are permissible when applied to children in schools under some state laws would be prohibited as criminal assault or battery when applied to adults in the community in those very same states.”

The bill in question, HB17-1038, applies not only to public schools but to child care centers, family child care homes (as legally defined), and “specialized group facilities.” The bill offers appropriate language allowing the use of force “to quell a disturbance” or in self-defense.

If anyone comes out against the bill, I’ll be interested to read their arguments. I can think of only two conceivable arguments, both flimsy.

Someone might argue that spanking is somehow good for children—but the evidence clearly proves the opposite. I regard “spankers” as roughly on par with anti-vaxers in terms of empirical legitimacy. Anyway, even if a parent might rationalize spanking his or her own child, that hardly would justify government employees spanking children.

Or someone might argue that formally banning spanking in public schools might create a “slippery slope” to banning spanking generally, even though many people beat their children for ostensibly religious reasons (don’t “spare the rod” and all that).

Of course, severe spanking (at least) already is outlawed under the child abuse statutes (18-6-401), which forbid inflicting “threat or injury” to a child’s health and inflicting “cruel punishment” (a vague term). Elsewhere (19-1-103), the statutes define “child abuse or neglect” as including cases in which “a child exhibits evidence of skin bruising, bleeding, . . . soft tissue swelling,” and so on.

Clearly the bill in question would not automatically create a legal presumption against (shall we say) light spanking by parents and parent-designated caregivers beyond those covered by the bill. We can and should debate another day whether—and in what manner and to what extent—parents and other caregivers should be legally allowed to spank their children or otherwise use corporal punishment. (Although I’m against spanking across the board, I also worry that legally defining child abuse too narrowly will lead to the abuse of basically good parents by overzealous bureaucrats.)

The upshot is that, even if you disagree with my view that parents never should spank children, we can still agree that government employees and state-licensed caregivers ought not beat the children in their care. Now Colorado legislators have an opportunity to affirm that principle.

Image: Wikipedia