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School CP - May 1977
Time, New York, 2 May 1977
The Court: Don't Spare the Rod
Over the years, the Supreme Court has declared that states must allow school children to express political opinions, to have a hearing before being suspended and to be free of prayer in the classroom. But last week, the high court refused an opportunity to intrude further into local control over education. In a 5-4 vote, the justices ruled that beatings administered by school authorities are not prohibited by the Eighth Amendment's ban against cruel and unusual punishment -- even when they result in serious injury.
The case involved the 1970 punishment of a Dade County, Florida junior high school student named James Ingraham, then age 14. His offense: lingering too long in the auditorium after a school assembly. As the boy told it, two school officials held him down while Principal Willie J. Wright whacked him more than 20 times with a 2-ft.-long wooden paddle. The resulting blood clots on his buttocks kept him in bed for a week. The boy's mother filed suit against the principal and other school officials. The plaintiffs charged that many students had been paddled -- for offenses as minor as forgetting gym shoes and whispering in class -- in a "reign of terror" against unruly behavior.
The majority opinion, written by Justice Lewis Powell, a former school board chairman in Richmond, Va., upheld lower court decisions and came down hard on the teachers' side. Powell stated that the Eighth Amendment applied only to criminal proceedings. Similar protection for children is unneeded, he wrote, because schools are open institutions that get close community supervision. Pre-punishment hearings for misbehaving students should not be made mandatory, Powell added, because such a requirement would "entail a significant intrusion into an area of primary educational responsibility." A punished student, he added, can sue if he feels wronged.
Physical punishment cannot be considered "cruel and unusual," the majority opinion concluded, because many Americans clearly approve of it. Massachusetts and New Jersey have banned spanking in public schools, as have a number of cities, including New York, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., but 21 states specifically allow use of moderate force in disciplining pupils.
Justice Byron White, who wrote a minority opinion, challenged the contention that state laws and common law offer children adequate protection against abuse. Although beaten students can often file civil suits against school officials in cases of excessive punishment -- and press criminal charges if malice is involved -- such suits are rare, and in any case the punishment cannot be undone.
Ingraham himself has since run afoul of the law and is currently serving a one-year jail term for resisting arrest. His case will scarcely end the centuries-old debate over whether sense can -- or should -- be beaten into schoolchildren. Despite psychiatric evidence that the practice is harmful and ineffective, advocates of the paddle see it as a simple instrument of law and order, and some of them swear by Proverbs 23: 14 -- "Thou shall beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell." Where local laws and customs do not prohibit paddling, misbehaving students will continue to get it in the end.
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