Paula Flowe doesn’t know exactly how many people will show up Friday afternoon for a rally at the Texas State Capitol. And she doesn’t know exactly how many people will join her in sleeping out there until proposed legislation in Congress (H.R. 5628) becomes law. But Flowe is certain that her cause — banning corporal punishment in schools — is worth the time and effort, even as she’s run through her retirement money and is in danger of losing her house.
“We have people coming in from Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and remote parts of Texas,” said Flowe, founder and executive director of The Hitting Stops Here! “We have one woman whose son was brutally beaten by a 400-pound teacher. The school said there’s nothing wrong with the child, but it will pay for his counseling. If nothing’s wrong, why pay for counseling? If Sasha and Malia went home like that, there would be an outrage.”
Twenty states still allow schools to administer corporal punishment and some don’t require parental consent or notification. Some have “teacher immunity laws” to protect employees from criminal or civil action. The practice is most prevalent in southern states such as Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida and Texas.
“Texas is the leading state and that’s why we’re here,” Flowe said. “They report more than 80,000 cases a year. The school superintendent said there’s more, but they don’t want to look bad. Number one is black boys, then black girls, Latinos, Native Americans and children with special needs. Twenty percent are autistic, mentally retarded or physically challenged. That’s just the reported cases, and reporting isn’t mandatory.”
Flowe has found an ally in fashion designer Marc Ecko, founder of Ecko Unltd, who’s scheduled to attend Friday’s rally accompanied by his own TV crew. Ecko is trying to bring national attention to the issue and recently wrote a Huffington Post article condemning corporal punishment.
A 2008 joint report by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, entitled “A Violent Education,” found that blacks made up 17 percent of the nationwide student population in the 2006-2007 school year, but nearly 36 percent of those paddled in schools. Black girls were physically punished at more than twice the rate of white girls. Special education students — students with mental or physical disabilities — also suffered disproportionately. About 200,000 students per year receive corporal punishment.
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) sponsored the “Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act (H.R. 5628),” which would ban corporal punishment in all public and private schools that receive federal assistance. Schools that continue the practice would have to operate without any federal funds. McCarthy says the elimination of corporal punishment will create safer and more conducive atmospheres that “foster students’ growth and dignity.”
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), a co-sponsor, sees the matter as an issue of equality, too. “The fact that schools are applying school discipline policies in a discriminatory manner based on race, color, national origin, disability or gender constitutes a civil rights violation and is wrong,” he says.
But time is running out. If Congress fails to act during this session, the bill can’t be reintroduced for a year. And Flowe fears that the next Congress, with its influx of Republicans, won’t be inclined to ban corporal punishment. Quite the contrary. “They’re ready to start extending it,” she said. “If it were rich white children being affected, we wouldn’t even need this bill because (corporal punishment) is a violation of the 14th amendment. But because it’s kids at the bottom of the caste system, they’re being denied their rights.”
As of Thursday afternoon, Flowe’s group still hadn’t received its permit for the rally, despite taking care of the paperwork and paying the $350 fee well in advance. “We’ve been unsuccessful in getting one state senator to sign our permit,” she said. “That’s unprecedented. If we can’t (rally) in front of the Capitol, we’ll do it on the street, where we don’t need a permit. But we’re not leaving. There’s going to be a bunch of people in sleeping bags, with signs and pictures, until the bill is passed.”
Deron Snyder can be reached at [email protected]>