From the Archives: Kansas bill defines legal spanking: A way to catch child abusers?


Would a spanking proposal introduced by a Wichita lawmaker give Kansas teachers new leeway to rough up the state’s schoolchildren?

That’s how some online reports have characterized the measure, which was introduced last week by Rep. Gail Finney -- ostensibly in an effort to reduce child abuse, not encourage it in the classroom.

“Kansas bill would allow spanking that leaves marks,” screamed one headline. “Teachers could spank harder under bill pending in KS legislature,” warned another. “Why a Kansas lawmaker seeks ‘red welt’ spanking guidelines,” said a third.


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Alarming headlines aside, Finney’s bill was intended to define what corporal punishment is, not bring down international ire on the Sunflower State.

But it is not fun reading, and it probably wouldn’t get very far in a place like California, one of 31 states that bans corporal punishment in schools.

It has long been legal in Kansas for a parent to use force to punish a child. Some school districts also use corporal punishment. Kansas is one of 19 states where corporal punishment in public schools is not outlawed, according to the Center for Effective Discipline website.

However, current Kansas law does not address corporal punishment, except through common law rights of parents to raise their children, said Britt Colle, the deputy county attorney who pushed for the bill, which was introduced by Finney.

The proposal would for the first time define what corporal punishment is in Kansas and what is permitted. And by application, Colle told the Los Angeles Times, it would also define what is illegal: using a belt, hitting with fists, hitting in the head.


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Finney did not respond to requests for comment. Her office staff said she would issue a written statement. Finney’s bill, which would amend the state code, contains one particularly long and jarring sentence:

“Corporal punishment as used herein is defined as up to ten forceful applications in succession of a bare open-hand palm against the clothed buttocks of the child and any such reasonable physical force on the child as may be necessary to hold, restrain or control the child in the course of inflicting corporal punishment or maintaining parental authority over the child acknowledging that redness or bruising may occur on the tender skin of a child as a result thereof.”

The proposal also would allow parents to give others — including school personnel or stepparents — the authority to hit “a minor child or child over the age of 18 going to high school” in a legal manner for the purposes of discipline.

Colle, who serves in McPherson County in central Kansas, said the proposal was actually a way for prosecutors to more easily go after child abusers, whose attorneys defend them by saying that corporal punishment is legal in Kansas and the suspects were only disciplining their children.

“It’s a common defense attorney tactic to claim discipline, and we’ve got to prove otherwise,” Colle said. “Sometimes some of those things are hard to prove. It’s kind of a subjective issue. Whether or not a judge came from a family that spanked people or not, if they think it’s OK or not. It’s a nebulous standard.”


But Colle’s written testimony in support of the bill also described the new definition as a way to protect parents who want to punish their minor children.

“Parents are so afraid of being charged with crimes,” he wrote, “... that they no longer know how to discipline children leaving an entire generation of oppositional defiant children without receiving any discipline or learning to live by the rules or learning right from wrong. The children become juvenile offenders and later criminals as they reach the age of majority.”

In recent years, researchers studying the hot-button issue of whether sparing the rod spoils the child have come to differing conclusions.

Calvin College psychology professor Marjorie Gunnoe might agree with Colle. In a study published in 2010, Gunnoe found that “adults who recalled being infrequently ‘hit’ were better adjusted than those who were never hit or hit frequently.”

But a 2012 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that “harsh physical punishment was associated with increased odds of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, and several personality disorders.”

The controversy won’t go away any time soon. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics is “strongly opposed” to the physical punishment of children, polls show that a majority of Americans have doled it out and received it.


A Harris poll released in September showed that 81% of Americans believe that it is sometimes appropriate for parents to spank their children, down from 87% in 1995. And 86% said they were spanked as children, a rate that has not changed in nearly two decades.

Where do you stand on corporal punishment?

Twitter: @marialaganga

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