Legislators Brace for Debate on Paddling


Nothing prompts Assemblyman Mickey Conroy and many other Republicans here to wax nostalgic like memories of a childhood paddling. These days, they’ve got a good political reason to reminisce.

Embracing the age-old notion that sparing the rod almost certainly spoils the child, Conroy and the GOP are pushing a pair of bills that could make paddling a staple in California’s juvenile courtrooms and classrooms.

While capturing headlines, the Republican Party’s embrace of corporal punishment has come under a blistering assault. A host of paddling opponents--armed with three decades of research they say proves the evils of corporal punishment--have banded with Assembly Democrats for what has become an unremitting partisan fight.


This week, the Assembly is set for a historic debate on Conroy’s bills, which have progressed further than similar pro-paddling efforts spawned across the country after the 1994 caning of an American teenager in Singapore for vandalism.

Conroy wants to repeal the state’s decade-old ban on the practice in schools. He also aims to give judges unprecedented authority to order juvenile graffiti vandals whacked on the bottom up to 10 times with a wooden paddle wielded by a parent or bailiff.

Conservatives such as Conroy--a white-haired former Marine Corps officer from Orange County--say childhood paddlings helped set them on the straight road to success. Citing the proliferation of graffiti on the state’s freeways and a range of discipline problems at public schools, they contend that the paddle could help keep today’s generation of errant youth in line.

“These juveniles need to be held accountable for their actions,” Conroy said. “It’s straight forward and simple. Let’s get back to basics. If you break the law or misbehave in class, you will be punished. Corporal punishment works.”

Foes say it is a myth with no basis in fact. They point to studies showing that paddling and other forms of physical punishment teach children the wrong lessons about violence while breeding resentment and anger among confused adolescents.

They also raise constitutional questions. Despite a state attorney general’s opinion arguing that Conroy’s anti-graffiti legislation would pass legal muster, opponents suggest that paddling is barbaric and unconstitutional, a punishment that doesn’t fit the crime.


Meanwhile, both camps are elbowing for the media spotlight in this election year.

Conroy and the wooden paddle he wields as a prop have been a staple on TV newscasts. His opponents have played catch-up. Eager to prove the inhumanity of corporal punishment, Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) grabbed a paddle during a well-attended Capitol news conference last week and delivered 10 echoing whacks to a child-sized dummy.

They also displayed half a dozen color photographs of the badly bruised buttocks of children who have been punished in schools.

“This is legalized beating of children,” Villaraigosa said. “Children as young as 6 or 7 could be beaten with a paddle that’s comparable in size to a Little League baseball bat.”

Amid the public relations spectacle, the political prospects for Conroy’s legislation on the Assembly floor remain unclear. Although a small band of GOP moderates would seem more apt to vote with Democrats on the bills, the Republican caucus could exert enough pressure to ensure Conroy’s legislation is pushed to the state Senate. If so, most Capitol insiders predict that both bills would be quickly executed in Democrat-controlled Senate policy committees.

Although corporal punishment in schools remains legal in nearly two dozen states, that number is down remarkably from 1976, when only two banned the practice. But opponents fear that Conroy’s effort to reverse California’s 1986 ban could shove the pendulum the other way.

Paddling of taggers in juvenile court would be unprecedented. Similar ideas were floated in Florida, Maryland and Texas but have gotten nowhere. In New Hampshire, lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow juries to order the paddling of bare-bottomed teenage vandals.


The pro-paddling legislation comes despite decades of research showing corporal punishment to be entirely ineffective as a disciplinary tool.

Several studies have demonstrated a strong correlation between juvenile crime and the use of corporal punishment in the home. While spanking is seen as a quick fix, one four-year study of school troublemakers found that parents who used corporal punishment to correct problems reported that it only got worse in the long run.

“The idea that spanking works when other things don’t is one of those truisms that’s false,” said Murray Straus of the University of New Hampshire’s Family Research Laboratory.

Researchers also argue that corporal punishment can lead to embitterment, anger and, in the worst cases, produce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder--headaches, stomach aches and vomiting--while teaching impressionable youths the contradictory lesson that violence is the way to solve problems.

A 1965 clinical study by Stanford University found that children invariably imitate aggressive behavior. One recent nationwide statistical survey discovered that schools employing corporal punishment were experiencing a higher rate of vandalism.

“It simply makes kids angrier, teaching them that might makes right,” said Irwin Hyman of the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives at Temple University. “And there is overwhelming evidence that when people are given the power to inflict pain on others, it will be abused.”


Given such empirical findings, a host of organizations have pushed in recent years to ban corporal punishment, among them the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Assn., American Bar Assn. and American Psychological Assn.

“These bills are a social and moral disgrace,” said Ellen Junn, a Cal State Fullerton associate professor of child development. “All organisms get used to punishment after a while. A light tap that works the first time doesn’t by the 10th. So you have to up the ante. By the time they’re 17 years old, what do you have to do? Punch them unconscious?”

Conroy, 68, dismisses such talk as the “psychobabble” of ivory tower intellectuals who ignore the real world.

He cites statistics on the disturbing rise in juvenile crime and truancy, the drop in school test scores, the soaring costs of eradicating graffiti--more than $300 million in California last year. In 1992, 118,000 juveniles were arrested for vandalism nationwide. Juveniles account for half the vandalism in California.

“Over the last 30 years we’ve failed to correct our youth with stern punishment,” Conroy said. “As a result, school districts like Los Angeles Unified have more than 300 armed police officers walking the halls trying to keep the peace.”

He is certainly not alone in feeling frustrated and believing that corporal punishment could help. A 1994 national survey found that 68% of parents believed that spanking was appropriate, down from 94% in 1968 but still a solid majority.


Although opponents worry that overzealous teachers, bailiffs or even some parents could seriously injure children, Conroy is confident that school boards would establish strict guidelines to limit problems, and judges could act as proper guardians against abuse.

The graffiti bill (AB 7) has captured much of the attention, but opponents say the reinstitution of corporal punishment in schools poses a greater threat. Conroy’s schools bill (AB 101) would allow a district to authorize the use of force--everything from paddling to whacking knuckles--for even the most minor offense.

Opponents also suggest that Conroy’s measures have hidden costs, ranging from special training for court personnel who might have to carry out the punishment to the price of medical care or defending lawsuits if a child were seriously hurt.

“This is typical of the Republican dark ages mentality about how to deal with a societal problem,” said Rep. Sam Farr (D-Monterey), who sponsored the 1986 ban on classroom corporal punishment during his tenure in the California Statehouse. “Here you have a cold war gladiator, Mickey Conroy, who is adopting examples from Third World countries about how to publicly flog kids in schools and courtrooms.”