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.

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Ted B. Kissell
Contact: Ted B. Kissell