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School CP - March 1879

Corpun file 22937


The New York Times, 16 March 1879

Whipping in the Public Schools.

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For a half century or more the courts and law books have been saying in a routine way that a school teacher has the right by law to inflict moderate chastisement upon disobedient or disorderly pupils. Some of them have also said, however, that a husband may chastise his unruly wife if the rod is not thicker than his little finger, and this doctrine has been so much weakened by age that one might well doubt the other if it rests on only the same authorities. Moreover, the alleged foundation of the teacher's right was that he held by delegation the authority of the parent. That is fully true of private schools, but how far does it apply under the modern public school system? Considerations like these have rendered the rule very uncertain. Hence, it is good news that an Iowa girl has elicited from the Supreme Court of that State a revised and corrected statement of the law of whipping in the schools.

The case arose in a public school, and was marked by this peculiarity, that the young lady in question was a month or so past the age of twenty-one. She was, however, not of firm health, and her father wrote a request to the teacher that she should be excused from afternoon schools, and also from the study of algebra, because he considered her health required this remission of study. Pupil brought this letter, but teacher declined to grant the request, and required her to join the algebra class. She did so, but the degree of her attention was not satisfactory to him, and when recitation was over he called her to account. She urged the excuse she had brought from her father. He said, "None of your sass, or I will take the hickory to you," and thereupon he reached for his whip, described as about four feet long and about half an inch in diameter at the largest end, and whipped the young lady severely. She testified to a dozen blows which produced marks that lasted two months. And she bore witness that she did not know for what offense she was punished.

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The teacher was criminally prosecuted for an assault and battery. The case was twice tried, and has been twice decided in the Court. No discussion is bestowed on the question whether a public school teacher has not some authority to use corporal punishment; that he has was taken for granted. A point was made that such authority could not apply to pupils more than twenty-one years old. But the court held that entering one's self as a pupil, and attending and claiming the advantages of the school, was a submission to its rules and discipline, and a consent to be treated like younger pupils.

Hence, the only question was as to the degree of the punishment. Upon this question the court has decided squarely against the teacher for two reasons. One was that the whipping was excessively severe. A teacher has only the right, in any case, to inflict a moderate punishment. When this is done, the question whether it was necessary, under the circumstances, is confided to the teacher's judgment.

But no misconduct or supposed necessity can justify beating a pupil immoderately. Any punishment with a rod which leaves marks or welts on the person of the pupil afterward, is pronounced by the court immoderate and excessive.

The other reason given is that the pupil was not apprised of the offense; whether she was whipped for absences from afternoon school, for inattention to algebra, or for "sass." The court declared that the legal objects of punishments in schools are three -- reformation of the pupil, enforcement of discipline, and example to others. In no case can punishment be justified unless the pupil has committed some offense, and is given to understand that the punishment is for that offense. Punishment inflicted when the reason for it is unknown is subversive, not promotive of its objects. The pupil need not be informed in any set terms, but the teacher must see to it that the reason for the infliction is really understood.

In respect to the father's excuse, the court held that a pupil cannot be chastised for absence or for declining a study, if the father has authorized it. Except where "compulsory education" has been established by law, a father has the right to limit his child's attendance and studies so far that the child's obeying the father cannot be punished as disobedience to the teacher. The only remedy available to the teacher is to send word back that if the pupil cannot attend the sessions and take the lessons of the school, he or she must stay away altogether.

Upon this point the decision is well sustained by a Missouri case. A lad attending public school was told by his father "not to study geography," and was whipped by the teacher for not studying it. The court held that the authority of the father in limiting the studies which his child shall undertake is paramount. While he cannot require that the child shall be taught "extras," he can say that the child shall omit such and such studies which he deems unsuitable or too severe. And if the school authorities find it inconvenient to have a pupil in attendance who is thus excused from part of the course, they may expel him. But they cannot punish him.

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