Mom says daughter was bruised by school paddling; Muscogee County considers banning corporal punishment

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comApril 13, 2013 

Tekicia Yancie had a choice: Allow the assistant principal to paddle her 11-year-old daughter who had been accused of bullying, or accept a three-day suspension for the East Columbus Magnet Academy sixth-grader.

"I didn't want her to miss any school," Yancie said.

That choice resulted in three whacks from assistant principal John Spurlock's paddle -- leaving the girl's buttocks so bruised that it was painful to sit and difficult for her to sleep, Yancie said. The mother called police that night and took her daughter to a hospital, where a medical report says she was treated for a contusion of the soft tissue and released.

The girl ended up missing more class time -- four days -- than if she'd taken the suspension.

Paddling won't be permitted again in the Muscogee County School District if the school board approves Interim Superintendent John Phillips' recommendation to ban corporal punishment. The board is scheduled to vote on the policy change during its 6 p.m. April 22 meeting.

It's unclear whether the incident prompted the recommended policy change, but this much is clear: Tekicia Yancie has changed her mind about corporal punishment in school.

Yancie said a school official called her on Feb. 22 and said her daughter had bullied a boy. The offense: The girl drew a picture that depicted the boy with a ponytail.

"I don't think that was grounds for suspension," Yancie said.

Yancie said this was the first time her daughter had been in trouble at school. But the sixth-grader had just received an "F" on her progress report in science, so the mother figured her daughter couldn't afford to be suspended for three days.

Plus, Yancie, 33, was paddled "once or twice" for reasons she couldn't recall when she was a student two decades ago at Marshall Middle School, "and it just stung, but there were no marks."

All of which led her to conclude that paddling was the least of two evils. "I thought it would be a lesson for her so she wouldn't have to go to the office again," she said.

Now, the mother regrets the decision. "It ended up being just totally different," she said.

Spurlock administered the girl's paddling, Yancie said. Principal Kevin Scott and a female guidance counselor also were present, she said.

Yancie said her daughter described what happened.

"She got the three licks," Yancie said. "It wasn't easy. They said she needed to turn around or get two more. She was crying, and they told her to wipe her face and get to class."

Yancie's daughter is 5-foot-3 and 110 pounds. Yancie estimated Spurlock weighs more than 300 pounds.

After she returned home, the girl didn't complain about the paddling until that night. Yancie was in the bathroom when her daughter came in and said, "Mom, my bottom is hurting."

The girl pulled down her pants, and Yancie was outraged at the sight.

"I was like, 'Oh, my God,'" she said. "Her bottom was red and purple and already turning dark on both sides."

Yancie emailed a photo of her daughter's bruised buttocks to her husband and aunt, who encouraged her to call the police.

According to a Columbus Police Department report, Officer Teresa Hudgens was dispatched at 7:25 p.m. to Yancie's home "in reference to a child that was paddled hard at school."

Hudgens reported that Yancie showed her a photo of the girl's buttocks, "and it was severely bruised." Later, Yancie also sent that photo to the Ledger-Enquirer. The newspaper chose not to publish the photo because of its graphic nature but used it to help confirm her story.

Yancie took her daughter to St. Francis Hospital. Medical personnel drew blood to ensure her kidneys were functioning and gave her pain pills, Yancie said. The girl slept at home that night -- but on her stomach and with her parents. She missed four days of school, Yancie said, and her bruises took about three weeks to heal.

On Feb. 27, five days after the paddling, Yancie and her aunt met with principal Scott, assistant principal Spurlock and the school district's security director, Scott Thomann, Yancie said. She showed them photos of her daughter's bruised buttocks.

"The assistant principal apologized and said he didn't know he paddled her too hard," she said. "… The principal said his daughter also has light skin and bruises more easily, but this was more than a bruise. I know the difference between a bruise and excessive force. This was excessive force."

Thomann asked Yancie to forward him the photos, she said, but she hasn't heard back from any school system officials.

Five days later, on March 4, Yancie and leaders from the Columbus chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People president Nate Sanderson and education chairwoman Latrica Rich, met with Gary Gibson, the superintendent's chief administrative assistant.

Sanderson stressed that the NAACP supports Yancie and her daughter but isn't representing them as the civil rights organization works to abolish corporal punishment in schools.

"We are holding in good faith that the school board will do what's right," he said.

Yancie and Sanderson said Gibson told them that the school district administration had already been working on banning corporal punishment before the girl was paddled.

"I was shocked," Yancie said.

Sanderson said, "Was it coincidental or were we the catalyst to make it happen? They told us they were in the process of changing it. I have to accept them at their word."

No school system officials involved in the case were reached for comment or made available for an interview. The Ledger-Enquirer's request for access to a photo of Spurlock's paddle or any other school district paddle also was denied. "We don't talk about any individual cases," said Valerie Fuller, the school district's communications director. She also wouldn't say whether Spurlock has been disciplined, but she did confirm he still is assistant principal at East Columbus.

Melvin Blackwell, the school district's student services chief, wouldn't discuss the paddling of Yancie's daughter, but he did agree to describe proper procedure. In an interview Friday afternoon, he was asked how to determine whether a paddling violated the law by being "excessive or unduly severe," language used in the school district's current policy on corporal punishment.

"If the pain lingers for some period of time, 24 to 36 hours in extreme cases, it may be considered excessive force," Blackwell said.

Asked whether bruising also would be a sign of excessive force, Blackwell said, "For a normal child with no pre-existing conditions, it might be excessive if it doesn't go away."

Asked why the administration is proposing to ban corporal punishment now, Blackwell wouldn't say whether this or any other case is a factor. "The district would like to go toward a more positive form of discipline," he said.

Fuller said she doesn't know the number of official complaints the school district has received about paddling, but there are no records of any such lawsuits, she said.

About an hour later, Blackwell and Fuller called the Ledger-Enquirer back to state that Spurlock did follow the corporal punishment policy and didn't use excessive force during the Feb. 22 case.

Yancie hasn't pressed for criminal charges or filed a civil lawsuit, she said, because she wants to first see whether the school board will vote in favor of the ban.

Yancie said she talked to interim superintendent Phillips in the hallway of the school district headquarters when she went to meet with Gibson.

"Dr. Phillips promised us it would be taken care of," she said.

Phillips and Gibson weren't reached for comment.

Yancie said she wants an official apology from the school district and her daughter transferred. She also wants to speak to the school board before members vote on the proposal.

"I will not stop until this issue is resolved," she said.

Current policy

Incidents of corporal punishment in the school district have increased from 738 in the 2009-10 school year to 866 in 2010-11 and 867 in 2011-12. There have been 590 as of March 1 in 2012-13.

No board members have spoken against the proposed policy change at their meetings since it was introduced last month.

"What people thought was the norm 40, 50 years ago, it's different now -- not good or bad, just different," said board chairman Rob Varner of District 5.

Leaving the school district exposed to lawsuits also concerns him.

"We have to defend ourselves, so let's just take that off the table as another target of litigation," Varner said. "Why put yourself through that? There are other ways to get a student's attention for discipline."

National Public Radio reported in September that 19 states, including Alabama, still allow corporal punishment in schools.

Chelsea Burgan, an itinerant art teacher for six Muscogee County elementary schools from 2005 to 2012, said she observed a trend in the students she saw being paddled.

"I noticed that students with behavioral issues that are manifestations of their disabilities, like those with autism and ADHD, were in the office more often in most of the schools I was in," she said, "and I noticed they were paddled more often."

Some principals threatened to paddle more often than others, Burgan noted.

"It's very inconsistent," she said. "I noticed that teachers were sometimes biased against students, especially if they had been in trouble before."

At one school, she saw the principal "walk around the hallways carrying a paddle in his hands often. … I felt intimidated, and I'm sure the students must have too."

One day, when she called the school's office for help with a difficult class, that principal came to her room and asked her who was misbehaving. She pointed out the student, and the principal "started swatting at him with the paddle."

She said she never called for help at that school again.

Opposing views

Lance Anthony is a retired social worker with 19 years of professional experience in the Alabama Department of Corrections, where he conducted counseling sessions about domestic violence and managing anger and stress. The Salem, Ala., resident is board chairman at Bethany Baptist Church in Phenix City. He also has been a substitute teacher in Muscogee and Russell counties.

Anthony is convinced Muscogee County would make a mistake if it bans corporal punishment.

"I fully believe in 'spare the rod and spoil the child,'" he said. "… The permissive society is a breeding ground for violence and trouble with a capital 'T.'"

A local psychologist, however, contends paddling is trouble. Angela Sims, director of the Sarah T. Butler Children's Center at the Pastoral Institute in Columbus, declined to give her opinion about the proposed ban, but said research shows better ways to discipline children.

"We never use corporal punishment in our work here," said Sims, a developmental psychologist for more than 25 years. "We use timeout, consequences, behavior charts. Children really respond well to reinforcement and praise, where they are working toward the positive."

Instead of paddling in schools, "I find it's more effective for children to write an essay about why they need to behave, or do extra chores or extra school work," she said.

Sims also prefers in-school as opposed to out-of-school suspension, so students aren't "rewarded for their behavior."

Perhaps nobody is more familiar with corporal punishment in Muscogee County than Jim Buntin. He has been on both ends of the paddle. He was whacked as a student at Jordan High School, Class of 1961; he administered the discipline as assistant principal at Columbus and Spencer high schools; and he was responsible for the district's policy as superintendent from 1995 to 1996.

Even when he was receiving blows, "I never looked at it as a bad experience," said Buntin, 69, who retired as an executive with TSYS after leaving the school district. "Every time it happened, it was well-deserved. I always felt people ought to be held responsible for their actions."

Buntin acknowledged paddling "certainly isn't the instrument for every infraction and every child. You've got to understand what motivates people. It's not 'I'm being a big man and trying to hurt you.' It's 'Hopefully, you're here to get an education, so what's the easiest way you can possibly get it?'"

Among the hundreds of students he paddled in 32 years as an educator, Buntin offers his first case as an example of successful corporal punishment.

He was a social studies teacher and coach at Lafayette High School in 1965. It was the first day of class, and a "big ol' boy" was more interested in testing the new teacher than listening to him.

The boy refused to sit down despite several reminders until they agreed to settle their dispute after class. They walked down to the gym to talk, but the boy still was belligerent, so Buntin "administered some directed guidance."

"He played on the football team I coached the following year and was a good kid, but you had to get his attention," Buntin said. "We ended up being really good friends, and he was a good student."

Having corporal punishment as an option also benefits the teachers, Buntin said. He remembers a female teacher who just arrived from New Jersey during his first year as assistant principal at Spencer.

"The first week, she said she can't believe an educator would ever put a paddle on a child," he recalled with a laugh. "After the second week, she was sending students down to me, and paddling wasn't enough. She wanted blood."

Buntin admitted, however, that corporal punishment isn't for every student.

"It works beautifully with an awful lot of people," he said. "But, to be honest with you, if you paddle some of them, they're going to burn the school down."

Indeed, one of Buntin's paddlings nearly sparked a disaster.

He remembers a boy he paddled at Spencer who knocked on his door at home several years later. The former student had become a preacher and now wanted Buntin's forgiveness -- for putting a bomb underneath his house to avenge the paddling.

Buntin didn't know about the bomb because the boy had changed his mind and removed it.

Through it all, Buntin still is a paddling proponent and hopes the school board opposes the proposed ban.

"I think it's got a definite place in the school system, but it's a selective place," he said. "It's not to be used indiscriminately. If it's used correctly, which is the reason why I used it, it can dramatically have a positive effect on discipline in the school. And if you're having a positive effect on disciplining students, you have the best chance of educating them."

A changed view

Terry Baker is another paddling veteran. He used it for the 10½ years he was principal of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School before he became the school district's elementary education director in January.

The paddlings always were as a last resort, always with a witness and always with parental permission, he said, but they weren't for every child.

"Several times, I could just talk to children," Baker said. "But other times, parents would request I use corporal punishment."

Baker's discipline options before paddling or suspension included conferences, counseling, timeout and detention. Repeat offenses such as cursing and blatant disrespect would prompt him to give the parent a choice between paddling the child or a suspension.

In-school suspension wasn't possible at the elementary school, he said, because the school didn't have the room or staff to support it.

Positive reinforcement came through words of encouragement and rewards. He gave previously misbehaving students treats if they stayed on the right path.

"Sometimes I didn't even need to use the paddle; I just needed to show it," Baker said. "I would take it and walk the halls with it. I would tell them, 'I expect everyone to be on their best behavior. I love you, the teachers love you, and we'll support you, but you are not going to misbehave.'"

Now, however, he supports the proposed paddling ban.

"We're living in different times now in terms of how we discipline children," he said. "It's time to move to something more positive than punitive."

Baker's changed opinion of paddling developed despite what he considered corporal punishment's success at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School.

"When I first got there, I had to do a lot of it to restore some order and get some structure in the school," he said. "But the last three or four years, the amount of paddling I had to do diminished significantly. Those children understood the expectations and the rules, so I didn't have to resort to that as much. I began to wean away from that because there's so much abuse happening now, you put yourself at such a risk.

"You can really move away from (paddling) once you establish a good order for conduct, be proactive and consistent and progressive and positive. When children know you care about them, that becomes the culture of the school."

The culture of the community also is an issue.

"A lot of people would rather their kids receive corporal punishment than to be suspended from school," said Sanderson, the Columbus NAACP president. "It's an ultimatum: three licks or three days. … You go and figure (working parents) with a child who can't be left at home by themselves, what does the parent say?

"As a taxpayer, I want kids to go to school to learn and become productive citizens, so I have no concern about your day care arrangements. But as a civil rights organization, it's an issue for us. That's why I'm struggling with this too."

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