School-Sanctioned Beatings are Alive and Well in the South

A horrific video released yesterday shows school administrators in (Jasper County) Georgia preparing to beat a five-year-old boy with a paddle while he desperately squirmed, screamed, and tried to escape the assault. 

The student was being punished for allegedly spitting on somebody else.  The two school officials who were trying to pin down the student so they could beat him with the wooden board were identified as Principal Pam Edge and Assistant Principal Lynn McElheney.  The video is disgusting.  Edge and McElheney tell the terrified boy he will be hit only once with the paddle unless he wiggled around.  As the boy tearfully twisted his body and tried to shield himself with his hands, one of the women told him they were going to go through with the beating and had “all the time in the world” to administer the punishment.  As the child tearfully begged his mother (who was video recording the despicable scene) to “help me,” either Edge or McElheney told him, “Mama can’t help.”  The boy’s mother later said she believed she had to allow the beating to happen because her son had already missed so much school that if he was suspended in lieu of receiving the beating, she would be arrested and go to jail for allowing her son to be a truant.  Her son had already accumulated 18 unexcused absences for the year (to attend medical appointments, according to his mother) and she had already been arrested as a result.

The barbaric practice of corporal punishment in public schools is incredibly still legal in 19 states, mostly in the South.  It was deemed constitutional (in a 5-4 vote) by the United States Supreme Court in a 1977 case called Ingraham v. Wright.  Massachusetts is one of a majority of states in the country that has outlawed the practice of allowing public school officials to beat children who are supposedly misbehaving.  Those opposed to corporal punishment point to research suggesting that beatings do far more harm than good.

While school children in Massachusetts cannot be beaten by their teachers, they can still face corporal punishment at home.  Last year, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled for the first time that parents have the right to spank their children.  The Court concluded parent-administered corporal punishment is lawful if it is reasonable, related to the welfare of the child, and does not cause physical harm (other than minor marks or fleeting pain), gross degradation, or severe mental distress.

It’s ironic that the Georgia school officials decided the appropriate way to teach a five-year-old boy that physical violence is not acceptable was to beat him with a wooden paddle.  Anybody who believes there is a place for corporal punishment in school (or anywhere else, for that matter), should watch the video and the callous behavior of Principal Pam Edge and Assistant Principal Lynn McElheney.  It’s hard to imagine how the little boy will be better off by having been beaten by school administrators who, presumably, he is supposed to trust.  The video has been viewed by more than a million people on the Internet and the media is reporting widespread, justifiable outrage by members of the community.  Hopefully schools that permit such violent punishments will reconsider in light of this terrible case.