Cruel or Usual Punishment?

On October 6, 1970, fourteen-year-old James Ingraham was late for school. When he got to his shop class at Liberty City's Drew Junior High School, he broke a glass. For these two transgressions, Ingraham was taken to principal Willie J. Wright's office to be paddled. When Ingraham protested, Wright called in two assistant principals. “Stoop over and get your licks,” Wright instructed. The eighth-grader refused.

The assistant principals, both men, pounced on him, grabbed his arms, and held him face-down over a conference table. For his offenses he was supposed to get a total five licks. A lick constituted a whack on the backside with the broad wooden paddle Wright carried. Because of his defiance, the number was upped to twenty. Ingraham remembers getting more than twenty, though he can't remember how many exactly.

When Ingraham's mother took him to the hospital later that day, the doctor found the beating had caused a hematoma -- severe bruising. The doctor prescribed pain relievers, sedatives, laxatives, and ice packs.

Ingraham's parents and those of another junior high student spanked by Wright and his staff sued the school board in federal court, arguing the hitting of schoolchildren amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution; also, that the lack of parental notification or any possibility of appeal before being spanked was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee to due process. Ingraham v. Wright made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where the court upheld the constitutionality of paddling. The publicity surrounding the case, however, spurred anti-spanking forces into action in Dade County.

In 1989 the Dade County School Board voted to ban corporal punishment in its schools. The board further strengthened this injunction in 1993, barring parents from striking children on school grounds. The leading lights of liberalism on the board at the time, notably Janet McAliley and Rosa Castro Feinberg, cite these policy changes among their proudest achievements in public life.

But corporal punishment still goes on in the Miami-Dade County School District. And many parents, especially black parents, approve of the practice. Take the case of Mariefrance Milhomme.

On May 2, 1999, school police arrested Milhomme, a first-grade teacher at Henry E.S. Reeves Elementary School in Northwest Miami-Dade. Acting on tips that Milhomme was spanking her students with a thin wooden paint stirrer she had named Mr. Stick, the school cops investigated for weeks, interviewing students, other teachers, parents, even setting up a hidden camera that caught Milhomme in the act of spanking at least one child.

When Milhomme was arraigned on child-abuse charges, numerous black parents rallied to support her. None of the children was injured, and the State Attorney's Office eventually declined to prosecute the case. But even after criminal charges were dropped, many of those same parents continued to gather to discuss means of pressuring the school district into letting Milhomme off the hook. They knew Milhomme had spanked their children, but most of them approved of her means for discipline.

To long-timers in the district, the Milhomme case comes as no great surprise. There are still a small yet significant number of teachers -- predominantly in poor black communities, both American born and immigrant -- who administer corporal punishment to their students with the blessing of parents.

Most people within the district scoff at this notion. Katrina Wilson-Davis, principal of the Liberty City Charter School, says that some of the parents at her school, which has a 100 percent black student body, do expect the school will spank their children -- but that doesn't mean teachers or administrators take them up on it. “You have to explain to them that you can't take corporal action against their kids,” she says.

Whether or not clandestine paddling continues on a large scale, there are teachers who lament the good old days, when a spanking, or at least the threat of one, was a valuable tool for maintaining order in the classroom. “What I hear from veteran administrators and retirees is basically, “When they took the paddle and the prayer from the schools, it all went to hell,” says Tonya Tarpley, an English teacher at Miami Norland Senior High School. “That's why some people are saying we need to get back to good, old-fashioned discipline, meaning that teachers are an extension of the family and community.”

In Ingraham v. Wright the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of corporal punishment in schools by a 5-4 vote. Writing for the majority, Justice Lewis Powell noted that the Eighth Amendment was written to protect the rights of convicted criminals; schoolchildren are not confined in school. In cases where corporal punishment crosses the line from a mere paddling to a severe beating, parents have other possible remedies, including civil suits and criminal charges for battery.

Justice Byron White, one of the four dissenters, argued that the policy of spanking first and asking questions later might be a denial of due process, and expressed revulsion at the severity of the beatings the Miami students had endured.

Former school board member Janet McAliley, who is white, remembers sending her child to Coconut Grove Elementary School back in the early Seventies. The school had a mostly black student body and a reputation for being out of control. At the time her son was there, the school got a new principal, a white woman originally from South Carolina named Joella Good. The new principal did not believe in corporal punishment; even though she was permitted to spank kids, she refused to do so.

“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.

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.

No doubt the most extreme case involves Clifton Lamb, a fifth-grade teacher at Dr. Edward L. Whigham Elementary School in South Miami-Dade. He not only was charged with breaking the district's corporal punishment rule, but criminally charged as well.

A white fifth-grade boy (whose name has been removed from the records) told school police that on April 4, 2000, some other students were joking with Lamb about a “booger” hanging out of Lamb's nose. The boy chimed in: “That's your mama hanging out of your nose.”

“Mr. Lamb became upset and grabbed [the student] by his shirt collar and left shoulder and pulled him across the hallway,” the report reads. “Mr. Lamb took [the student] into his classroom, which had no other students inside, and grabbed him by his face. Mr. Lamb then told [him]: “I don't like you, I don't want to talk to you, and I don't want to see you.'” Lamb then allegedly let him go, and he ran crying from the school, yelling that he was going to tell his parents what happened.

In investigating this incident, school police also determined that Lamb would regularly make students who misbehaved stand in the corner holding heavy books over their heads. In fact while school police Sgt. Dermot Horgan was at the school interviewing the principal on May 15, he went into Lamb's classroom and witnessed a student standing in the corner holding two books over his head. “I took the books and placed them into evidence,” Horgan wrote, noting that he advised Lamb not to use corporal punishment.

By this time the first student's parents had contacted the State Attorney's Office about Lamb allegedly grabbing their child. Horgan also had been in touch with the SAO. When Lamb and his union representative showed up at the Region 6 school police station on June 2, Horgan arrested Lamb for battery, a misdemeanor.

Lamb was forced to resign from the district and is awaiting trial in the criminal case. No date has been set.

Although the Lamb case actually has resulted in criminal charges, and several of the others described some rather shameful smacks, grabs, and slaps, none of these cases received the amount of media attention, or whipped up as much outrage, as the Milhomme case. The Miami Herald and local television stations followed the case closely at the time of her arrest -- precisely because Mariefrance Milhomme, unlike the other alleged spankers in the district, had been charged with felony child abuse.

Her criminal attorney in the case was Miami attorney Edward Tobin, who remains perplexed at the district's aggressive pursuit of his onetime client. “I thought there was a separate agenda at work here,” Tobin says. “There was somebody up in the school system who had an agenda -- one that had nothing to do with corporal punishment. Somebody had an ax to grind.”

This assessment may be accurate. As New Times detailed in a feature story (“A Lesson in Mismanagement,” May 20, 1999), a group of some half-dozen teachers at Reeves Elementary had a laundry list of complaints against the school and principal Diane Paschal. Many of these problems stemmed from the teachers' displeasure with the Edison Project, the for-profit education management company that operates the school under a contract with the school district. But some of these disaffected teachers also cited other problems at the school, notably the openness with which Paschal permitted some teachers to practice their chosen form of Christianity, and with the corporal punishment occurring in the school. Those teachers blew the whistle not only on Milhomme, but on Paschal herself.

Paschal was never arrested or charged criminally. The arrest of Milhomme, though, prompted a swift and determined response from the parents of many of her students. At Milhomme's arraignment, several parents stood in the audience wearing hastily printed T-shirts that read, “Miss Milhomme, we got your back.” When the SAO dropped the charges against the teacher, the parents turned their attention to the school district and began holding strategy meetings on how best to pressure the school administration to stop its investigation of Milhomme and get her back into the classroom.

“Miss Milhomme has a passion for kids,” said Anita Latson, mother of one of Milhomme's first-graders. “The children were whining and crying in class, saying, “I thought Miss Milhomme was coming back.'” Like most of the other parents, Latson said she didn't mind that the teacher had used corporal punishment.

But when Jasmin Farquharson's son, Seth Gordon, told her he had been among the first-graders Milhomme had paddled, Farquharson was livid. “I don't oppose corporal punishment,” she says. “If a parent decides to do it, it's his or her business. But kids go to school to learn, not to be beaten.” Farquharson, a black woman originally from Jamaica, has retained an attorney and is considering legal action against the school district.

Max Rameaux, a long-time community activist of Haitian descent, wasn't directly involved in the Milhomme case. But he isn't surprised that many parents supported Milhomme. “Black people tend to protect what we feel is our turf,” he observes. “Also, I've found that blacks are far more lenient and accepting of corporal punishment than whites are, particularly toward boys. You're trying to keep them in line for their own good.

“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.

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.”

Rosa Castro Feinberg, who helped pass the district's ban on paddling, agrees that class is paramount in one's attitude toward spanking children. (Her late husband, Alfred Feinberg, had originally represented the plaintiffs in Ingraham v. Wright, though he died before it reached the high court.) “Part of the problem, and this is terrible, schools are run by middle-class people, many recently escaped from lower-class origins,” she recounts. “These kids can be a reminder of what we want to forget about those origins. It's a love-hate relationship. But hitting these kids is not the answer. We can't hit them today and expect them not to hit back tomorrow.”

When the school board first adopted its single-member district voting structure, old-guard liberals such as Castro Feinberg and McAliley feared that the new board -- which would include not only more black members but more politically conservative Cuban Americans -- would undo many policies of the old board, the corporal punishment ban among them. A 1996 Herald-NBC 6 poll indicated that the respondents were split evenly on the issue of spanking, but showed that 65 percent of black respondents favored a return to the rod.

Only one candidate in the 1996 election, Renier Diaz de la Portilla, took a strong stand in favor of paddling; he won that year, but was voted out in 1998. On the current board, Solomon Stinson has indicated he will support the policy unless his constituents clamor for a change. No other school board member has raised the issue in recent years.

The Miami-Dade County ban on beating students appears safe. Statewide the trend against corporal punishment could very well spread to more counties, if not all of Florida. Activist Shaloma Shawmut-Lessner says she is planning a group canoe tour of the state for this winter, “to show the only thing paddles should be used for.”

Meanwhile Miami-Dade's most famous spanker, Willie J. Wright, remains in the school system. After the Ingraham incident, he continued to serve as a principal for the next three decades. Throughout his career he has been the subject of numerous investigations for allegedly violating school board rules. (The district could not provide details of those cases at press time.)

The 70-year-old Wright is in fact under investigation right now, and the complainant is a student, but the school district can release no more details of the pending inquiry. District records do show that Wright was transferred in June from his post as principal of William A. Chapman Elementary School to a job in the schools' transportation department. A source tells New Times the allegation is one involving battery against a student.


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