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Sponsor of Kansas spanking bill says it would help define corporal punishment, restore parental rights

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014, at 4:25 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, at 7:23 p.m.

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A bill introduced by a Wichita lawmaker would ease some restrictions on spanking in Kansas, allowing parents, caregivers or school officials to hit children hard enough to leave redness or bruising.

Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, who introduced the bill, said it attempts to define corporal punishment, restore parental rights and protect parents who spank their children from being charged with child abuse.

“What’s happening is there are some children that are very defiant and they’re not minding their parents, they’re not minding school personnel,” Finney said Tuesday.

“What it (the proposed law) does is it tries to give a definition. … But it does not allow hitting, punching, beating, because that is still considered abuse.”

Current Kansas law allows spanking that does not leave marks. The proposed legislation, House Bill 2699, would define corporal punishment as “up to 10 forceful applications in succession of a bare, open-hand palm against the clothed buttocks of a child.”

The bill also would allow “reasonable physical force” to restrain a child during a spanking, “acknowledging that redness or bruising may occur on the tender skin of a child as a result.”

It would continue to ban hitting a child with fists, in the head or body or with a belt or switch.

The bill would allow parents to give permission to others, including school officials, to spank their children, including students over 18 who are enrolled in high school.

“Corporal punishment is already allowed by law in Kansas,” Finney said. “It’s just trying to get a definition, because what’s happening is our kids and some of our law-abiding parents are entering into DCF (the Department of Children and Families) and law enforcement custody when it could have been avoided.

“It could be a small amount of a bruise (and) a parent could still be charged with child abuse when it wasn’t anything serious,” she said.

Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said current state law is plenty clear on the difference between spanking and abuse.

Abuse of a child, a felony, is defined as “torturing or cruelly beating” a child, shaking that results in bodily harm or “inflicting cruel and inhuman corporal punishment.”

Battery, a class B misdemeanor, is “knowingly or recklessly causing bodily harm to another person or … causing physical contact with another person when done in a rude, insulting or angry manner.”

“We don’t arrest people for giving their kid a swat on the behind,” Bennett said.

“There seems to be an effort here to line-item all the things that can be done and can’t be done. … I’ve been doing this for 19 years now, and there’s no ‘redness rule’ or ‘10-strike rule’ or ‘closed-fist rule’ in Kansas law. I don’t know, frankly, what’s driving this.”

Opponents of spanking called the measure disturbing.

John Valusek, a retired Wichita psychologist and teacher who spearheaded a decades-long crusade against spanking, said any use of force against children is unnecessary and damaging.

“If you hit kids when they’re small, for whatever reason you’re hitting them, you’re planting the idea that it’s OK to use pain to accomplish an end,” he said.

Valusek, 83, is best known for his black-and-yellow bumper stickers that proclaim, “People Are Not for Hitting, and Kids Are People, Too.” He still has a stack of the stickers in the basement of his Wichita home. And though he seldom lectures anymore to parents, teachers or church groups about alternatives to spanking, he says his crusade continues.

“We wonder where violence comes from,” he said. “What I’m saying is, even with the best of intentions, with the best parents, once you use spanking, whether you’re doing it in God’s name or whatever, you’re saying it’s OK to use pain to accomplish certain purposes.”

Although Kansas is one of 20 states that still allow spanking in schools, a Wichita school district policy on pupil discipline says: “Corporal punishment is not an acceptable form of disciplinary action.”

School employees may use “reasonable force” to repel an attack, to protect other people or property or to prevent any illegal act on the part of any student, the policy says.

Wichita Catholic schools also do not allow or condone spanking. According to the current policy handbook: “Corporal punishment will not be used in the Catholic schools of the Diocese of Wichita.”

Dorothy Adams, a fifth-grade teacher at Hyde Elementary School in Wichita, said she “cannot imagine” spanking children in the classroom.

“What kind of message would I be sending to them if I chose to hit them for something they had done?” Adams said.

“I am not saying I am for or against spanking. What I am saying is that it has no place in schools,” she said. “We are always striving to make our classrooms safer for children. This would be working against that effort.”

Kansas law requires teachers, doctors, counselors and other mandatory reporters to inform either local law enforcement or the Kansas Protection Reporting Center if they suspect a child has been abused.

Redness or bruising could raise such suspicions, said Bennett, the district attorney. But making the call “doesn’t mean that a child-in-need-of-care case is going to be opened or that somebody is going to be charged,” he said.

“At some point, you’ve got to allow for some reasonable application of the law,” Bennett said. “You have to trust law enforcement officials and/or social work officials to exercise some discretion in recognizing what is just a spank on the bottom versus cruel beating or torture.

“We have plenty of very legitimate, profound cases with serious injuries,” he said. “We don’t need to go shore up our numbers by charging people with spanking their kids.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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