Cruel or Usual Punishment?

Miami-Dade County has a hands-off policy toward its schoolchildren, but that doesn't mean corporal punishment has gone away

“Instead, when children acted up, she would talk to them in this soft voice,” McAliley recalls. “She assumed they were rational human beings who didn't need to be hit. Hers was one of the first schools to stop using corporal punishment, and she did bring that school under control. She became something of a legend, and I was very influenced by her.”

When McAliley was elected to the school board in 1980, she was strongly opposed to corporal punishment, but state law left the decision about whether to spank to the principals, not the school boards. Early in her tenure, McAliley pushed to find out just how many spankings were going on. The numbers stunned her. “We had like, 16,000 administrations of corporal punishment in a 180-day school year,” she recalls. “Some schools were doing it up to 800 times during the school year.”

The rate was highest at the predominantly black schools, but spanking was widely used throughout the county, McAliley says. Aside from the sheer weight of the statistics, McAliley discovered that spanking records were sketchy, and it was difficult to determine the reasons why an individual student had been spanked. This, she believed, opened the door to the abuse of what she already saw as a grim policy. “I was worried that the spanking was not being done to correct student behavior, but to satisfy the anger of the adults in charge,” she observes.

When Janet McAliley first joined the school board, the sheer number of spankings appalled her
Steve Satterwhite
When Janet McAliley first joined the school board, the sheer number of spankings appalled her
Jasmin Farquharson didn't appreciate Mariefrance Milhomme spanking her child
Steve Satterwhite
Jasmin Farquharson didn't appreciate Mariefrance Milhomme spanking her child

In the early Eighties, the school district changed the spanking rules to require extensive documentation of each incident. The numbers were reviewed twice during each school year, and those schools with the most paddlings would receive a visit from a district review team to help identify the problems. “This was definitely an example of more bureaucracy being better,” McAliley says. “The last thing any school wants is negative attention from downtown.”

Corporal punishment numbers began to decrease, but even in the mid-Eighties, the whackings continued, and Dade County's black students were getting more than their fair share. In 1987 the National Coalition of Advocates for Students published a study of disciplinary policies and statistics in public schools throughout the nation. In Dade County, where black students at the time made up about one-third of the student body, blacks received more than half of all spankings reported in 1984 and 1985. The next year that number jumped to 66 percent.

Elsewhere in the nation, entire states had begun banning corporal punishment. Jordan Riak, a former teacher who had spent most of his career in Australia, moved back to the United States and drafted California's law prohibiting spanking, which was adopted in 1987. “The beating of children is recognized as a destructive and dangerous practice by educators in most of the civilized world -- except the U.S.,” Riak says.

Locally school board member McAliley and Miami activist Shaloma Shawmut-Lessner (known as the Paddle Lady for bringing paddles with her to the legislature to protest their use) lobbied for a change in the state statute, one that would allow individual school districts to set their own policies on corporal punishment. The anti-paddling forces got a major boost in August 1987, when, the United Teachers of Dade union announced a reversal of its longstanding pro-paddling position. Union head Pat Tornillo declared the union's support for exploring alternatives to corporal punishment.

“To Pat's credit he reversed his position, which is very hard for people to do in public life,” McAliley recalls. Once the union threw its lobbying weight behind a change in the state law, change came in a hurry. After the spring legislative session of 1989, McAliley introduced a motion to amend Dade County schools' policies to ban corporal punishment. The new rule passed that June.

“It's a really bad system when you have big people with authority beating little people with none,” comments Rosa Castro Feinberg, one of the board members who voted to ban the practice.

Several other counties joined Dade, many in the same year. Today Florida is one of 23 states in the union that still allows spanking in its public schools. Of Florida's 67 counties, just 17 (including Miami-Dade) have banned corporal punishment. Despite a dramatic drop in the number of reported paddlings, one constant has remained: the higher rate of corporal punishment applied to black children. In those school districts that still permit the practice, 11.5 of every 1000 white students got paddled in 1998 and 1999. For every 1000 black children, 19 got spanked.

In Miami-Dade County there are relatively few reported violations of the ban. According to the district's personnel office, eleven cases of alleged corporal punishment have been completed since 1998. (This number does not include cases that might still be under investigation.) Of these, nine were found to be substantiated. In each of the substantiated cases, the teacher or administrator was black.

Two of the confirmed violations from 1998 were committed by one man, Donald Kee, a first-grade teacher at Opa-locka Elementary School. In one case Kee was accused of making five second-grade boys pull down their pants, and then spanking them with his belt. In the other he was accused of striking a first-grade boy on the hand with a ruler. All the victims in these two instances were black. Kee was forced to resign from the school district.

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