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

“I liken it to the use of the n-word,” he says. “It's perfectly acceptable among a bunch of black guys hanging out with each other, because there's an absence of contempt. The same way, if a black teacher spanks a black student, it's not seen as being out of contempt, but out of love.”

After an investigation that dragged on for more than a year, the Miami-Dade County school district determined that Milhomme, whether or not she had love in her heart, did violate the district's ban on corporal punishment. Investigators also determined that Paschal had used an overly tough hand; despite eyewitness descriptions of incidents, Paschal has maintained her innocence throughout the investigation.

The district has not yet handed down Paschal's punishment, but the state Department of Education might beat them to it. In February the department filed an administrative complaint against Paschal for breaking the school district's rules. The possible penalty could include the suspension or revocation of her teaching certificate. The DOE filed a nearly identical complaint against Milhomme in July. According to a department spokesperson, both Paschal and Milhomme currently are negotiating a settlement with the department.

Hector Hirigoyen didn't do much paddling in his day but he misses it as a disciplinary tool
Steve Satterwhite
Hector Hirigoyen didn't do much paddling in his day but he misses it as a disciplinary tool

Milhomme no longer works for the district. Paschal also has resigned from the district, and now works for the Edison Project, which is based in New York City.

Little more than a decade ago, the forms of discipline applied at Reeves Elementary would have been perfectly legal within any school district in Florida. Despite the longstanding ban on spanking in schools, some teachers have come to lament Miami-Dade's hands-off policy.

Tonya Tarpley, the English teacher at Norland High, says she doesn't use corporal punishment in her classroom or condone its use. But she does understand why teachers might wax nostalgic for the paddle.

Today, Tarpley explains, the pendulum of power in the classroom has swung to the other extreme. “If a student accuses you of putting a hand on them, the teacher always comes out the worse for wear, and the kids always come out smelling like a rose,” she says. “They can slap you or spit on you, and if you make them stand in the corner, they'll destroy you.”

One veteran social studies teacher concurs. “Teaching in the Seventies, when you could hit a kid, if a kid was acting up, you could put the fear of God in him,” he remembers. “You really did have better discipline. Now the kid puts the fear of God in the teacher.” All a student needs to do, he says, is make some sort of accusation against a teacher, and the school district generally will remove the teacher from the classroom while the allegation is investigated. “The teacher has no recourse at all, no power,” the teacher moans. “He's the lowest of the low.”

Beach High math teacher Hector Hirigoyen also has seen a decline in student decorum since Miami-Dade outlawed corporal punishment. “I'm seeing a lot of kids whose attitude is, “You can't do anything to me, therefore I'm going to push the envelope all the way to the end,'” he says.

Hirigoyen admits he has heard rumblings over the years that, based upon the black community's general acceptance of corporal punishment in the home, spankings were still taking place in some schools with mostly black kids. “I know it's part of the culture, but it's hard to say whether those stories are true or not,” he says. “I've heard horror stories but I don't know how much is fact.

“I'm going to do as much as I possibly can to try to discipline a kid,” he adds. “You're going to do whatever the market is going to bear. I know I can get away with doing and saying certain things to Hispanic kids, because I know the culture. I know exactly what to tell Mom and Dad to get things done.”

Tarpley says she doesn't hear much about outright spanking, but she does hear rumors of other forms of discipline that might be considered corporal punishment: standing in a corner, holding heavy books, et cetera. “I still hear about in elementary levels, you know, “She'll do this-and-that to her kids,' but nothing I can say happened at any particular school,” she offers. “Do I cringe when I hear these things? No. Because it sounds like the teacher is in charge of those classrooms, and we have a lot more classrooms where the children are in charge, and the teacher feels like a hostage.”

Although most of the rumors pertain to black students, she doesn't see the issue as primarily racial. “I think it breaks down more along class lines,” she says. “The more sophisticated and middle- to upper-class we think we are, the more we get away from those so-called old-fashioned values. We've moved on up, and now we're like, “Nobody better hit my child.' For those who have not yet overcome and achieved, including recent immigrants, corporal punishment is sometimes an accepted way of disciplining kids.

“In Little Haiti, some parents tell teachers, “If he acts up, you whip him good,'” she continues. “But it's more by class, not by race or ethnicity. With so-called well-off black and white parents, if you touch that child, you're going to have a lawsuit.”

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