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An arrest in August of a Shelbyville man who spanked his 5-year-old son, a student at Painted Stone Elementary School, and left bruises on him, has raised the question about when spanking is appropriate discipline and when it is criminal.
Employees at the school suspected that a student was being abused and reported their observations, and the man, whose name is being withheld to protect the privacy of the child, was charged with one count of first-degree criminal abuse, a felony punishable by 1 to 5 years in prison. He was arrested and bonded out of the Shelby County Detention Center.
Shelbyville Police Chief Bob Schutte said the teachers reported the incident to social services because they are required by law to do so if they suspect a student is being abused.
“Whenever you have a child in the school system with marks on them, that’s something that has to be investigated,” he said.
Spanking, for centuries a staple of punishment for both parents and educators, has become a very sensitive topic because of the fine line it shares with abuse. An employee at the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services in Shelby County told a reporter that “we are not allowed to talk to you about that.”
School officials, on the other hand, will discuss corporal punishment, but they are quick to say that it no longer is employed as a disciplinary practice in Shelby County.
Dave Weedman, truancy officer and director of student services for the Shelby County Public Schools, said this is the first such occurrence of this type in five years that he knows of.
“I’m 62, so I got a few licks when I was in high school,” he said. “I think corporal punishment is still allowed, but nobody does it anymore.
“Here in Shelby County, we just discipline in other ways, like with timeout and in-school suspension and a variety of other measures. We don’t want to hold a kid up for ridicule; that’s not what we want to do with discipline, we want to alter behavior.”
SCPS’ disciplinary process regulation doesn’t address spanking for any other corporal punishment, but it does say that “student disciplinary measures should not be administered in a manner that is humiliating, degrading or unduly severe, or in a manner that would cause the pupil to lose status before the peer group.”
That’s a far cry from his grade school days back in the early 1960s, Weedman said.
“I remember my teacher making a kid sit in a trashcan,” he said.
Other types of punishment he recalled teachers using included making students stand with their noses pressed against a circle on the blackboard or having to write “I will not talk in class,” 100 times.
“Spanking probably died out in the 1980s,” he said. “Back in the old days, in the 1970s or so, we would just give a lick and that would be the end of it. These days, teachers just write a disciplinary note, and the student has to go to the office.”
At least one private school in Shelby County mirrors the public schools’ code for physical discipline. Corpus Christi Academy Principal Phyllis Sower said her school in Simpsonville strictly prohibits it.
“We have an express written policy that any form of corporal punishment is strictly forbidden,” she said, a policy that has been in place since at least 1999.
Sower, who attended Catholic school as a child, said she remembers back when that wasn’t the case.
“I’m over sixty, and I hate to admit it, but I was on the receiving end a time or two, and deservedly so,” she said with a chuckle. “And I can tell you one thing; if you got in trouble with sister at school, then you were in trouble at home, too. But the thing about it was, I think it made us more accountable. It certainly was added inspiration for good behavior.”
Sower said some ways that teachers dole out punishment at the Academy these days is either a note home to parents, loss of recess privileges, writing an essay on why good behavior is required, or a combination of some of those measures.
“Sometimes they have to be reminded of the importance of being polite and courteous to others,” she said.
Weedman said he remembers hearing someone say, back before he retired as principal of Oldham County High School in 2008, that spanking wasn’t against the law.
“And I said, just because it’s not against the law doesn’t make it a wise thing to do,” he said.
Another private school, Cornerstone Christian Academy, does make provisions for corporal punishment.
School officials did not respond to calls from The Sentinel-News, but the school’s behavioral policy, as stated on its Web site, says that teachers and administrators first will attempt to address behavior problems in by using non-corporal methods. If that doesn’t work, then disciplinary action alternatives include parent conferences, after school detention, work detail suspension and paddling.
“CCA reserves the right to corporally punish any student for infractions at the designated level in the Code of Behavior,” the school’s handbook says. “The Headmaster may administer corporal punishment with a witness present and subject to parental approval. If a parent desires Cornerstone not to use corporal punishment, then suspension will be used as the alternative consequence. Parents will need to send a letter to the Headmaster if they request corporal punishment to not be used.”
Not against the law
Law enforcement officers share that perspective.
“As far as what’s permissible, I’m not going to say whether you should spank your child or not.,” Schutte said. “I’m just saying that if it’s a situation where you’re going to leave marks or cause physical injury, then sure, that’s a situation that’s going to get investigated and may even result in an arrest.”
Luke VanHoose, a detective in the Kentucky State Police’s child abuse unit, said it is not against the law to spank a child, a common misconception.
“I don’t get a lot of abuse cases where spanking is involved,” he said. “What I see more of is children who are 13 or 14, and as big as their parents, and they have gotten into a fist fight or a knock-down drag out. And they flat out tell me, ‘Well, it’s against the law to spank.’ And I tell them, ‘I don’t know where you read that.’”
VanHoose said the trouble is, spanking can get out of hand too easily, leading to a scenario that leaves bruises on a child, and that, he says, is not acceptable.
“There’s a big difference between leaving a red mark that goes away in a short time and a mark from a belt or a paddle that is still there forty-eight hours later,” he said. “That’s when you know something is wrong; too much force was used, or an improper instrument.”
VanHoose said if parents feel they must spank, the key is they should not do it in anger.
“If you’re angry, instead of a couple of licks on the bottom, they end up giving a lot more, as much as a dozen or more. So they end up spanking too hard, just out of anger and out of the heat of the moment.”
Consistency a key
VanHoose said whether parents discipline their children with spanking, taking away privileges or other measures, such as sending them to their room, consistency is the key.
“You hear people tell their kids, ‘Just wait till I get you home!’ And the child just rolls his eyes and laughs because he knows it’s not going to happen,” he said. “If you tell a child you’re going to make him sit in a corner if he doesn’t do his homework, and then you don’t follow through with that, that’s when the discipline problems escalate.”
VanHoose, who said he remembers when people used a wooden spoon to spank their kids, had another piece of advice for parents.
“Whatever the punishment consists of, you and your spouse have to be on the same page about it, or it won’t work,” he said.
Weedman said whether it’s at home or at school, moving a child to a place of solitude often takes some of the steam out of the situation.
“Time out, and in-school suspension, for example,” he said, “is a way to take them out of the classroom and lets them calm down and think about what they have done.”
Suspect child abuse?
Call the Prevent Child Abuse Hotline at 877-597-2331.