Bush student spanking prescription resonates 20 years later

Story highlights

  • Jeb Bush once wrote approvingly of corporal punishment - spanking
  • The practice is still in place in several counties in Florida and throughout the South

Washington (CNN)In 1995, when Jeb Bush was a real estate developer dusting himself off after his first failed run for governor, he wrote a book with a moral prescription for Florida that included an assertion not often discussed twenty years later: disciplining students by spanking them, he implied, may actually prevent school shootings.

Bush's writings on shaming single parents drew scrutiny when reporters reassessed his book this year and Democratic leaders pushed hard on the storyline ahead of his presidential announcement this month.
But overlooked was his discussion of spanking one page later. In his book, "Profiles in Character," he argues that shame is also effective at keeping students in line -- and spanking or paddling is the way to shame them.
    "In some school districts, such as Walton County, one of the oldest forms of shame, corporal punishment, is alive and well, and despite protests by some parents and Florida's PTAs, the students have actually found that this doling out of shame is very effective," Bush wrote at the time.
    He then closes by saying, "To date, Walton County has never experienced a shooting in any of its schools."
    Public comments from Bush on the issue since then are scarce. Bush campaign spokesman Tim Miller declined repeatedly to say whether Bush still supported corporal punishment, only saying instead that Bush had a strong record on education during his eight years as governor, from 1999-2007.
    Bush's book was published 20 years ago, but spanking students (or paddling them) still happens across the U.S., simmering just below the surface in states where issues like gay marriage, budget struggles and the federal health care law often take top billing.
    In 2002, in the middle of a crisis at Florida's child welfare department, Bush selected Jerry Regier to run the agency. After it came out that that Regier had promoted spanking children in a fiery 1989 essay that also argued against Christians marrying non-Christians, Bush stood by his new secretary, according to a Miami Herald article.

    Corporal punishment still used

    But even though Bush and other candidates aren't talking about the issue, corporal punishment is still a regular practice in many schools throughout the South and Midwest.
    As of this year, 19 states allow corporal punishment or corporal discipline, according to the United Children's Defense Fund, and in Kansas last year, one lawmaker pushed to expand the practice to allow for bruising children.
    In the Florida panhandle many schools still allow corporal punishment of students. And, as of 2012, some students in Holmes County were still sanding and polishing their own paddles which could then be used on them.
    In Walton County, which Bush held up as an example of moral success, 251 students were paddled in 2011-2012 (the most recent school year for which the U.S. Department of Education has statistics). But in 2014, the school board decided to ban the practice, on the recommendation of school superintendent Carlene Anderson.
    "As a school board, we looked carefully at corporal punishment and made the determination that indeed there were other forms of discipline that were more effective," said Gail Smith, chairwoman of the Walton County School Board.
    Medical researchers disagree with Bush's comment. They say that spanking students can actually increase violent behavior among students, as well as increase their chances for developing mental illnesses later in life.
    "There's long-term psychological damage that can come from this. There's a significant increase in the incidence of anxiety and depression," said Dr. Ann Budzak-Garza, medical director for the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center in Wisconsin and a pediatrician specializing in child abuse.
    Rather than controlling students effectively, it spurs them to hide behaviors and learn worse conduct because they are awaiting possible beatings, she said.
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    "It's being in a state of hyper-alertness and being on guard for what's coming next," she said. "One researcher felt there was an educationally-induced post-traumatic stress disorder found in numerous kids who had experienced corporal punishment in schools."
    Medical groups, including the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association, joined together in 1974 to attempt to ban corporal punishment nationwide, but were unsuccessful. Since then, Budzak-Garza said advocates have struggled to crack into the South.
    "What really astounds me as I look at the history of this is that very well-respected authorities on health have been actively trying to eliminate corporal punishment in schools since 1974," she said. "Unfortunately, there is a solid belief among an outspoken section of the United States that says hitting kids is OK and it works."
    A 2003 paper in the Journal of Adolescent Health noted that parents who had been spanked themselves growing up were often more supportive of the practice, based on the assumption it did not harm them at all as adults.
    "Corporal punishment in schools continues a cycle of similar punishment that may have already occurred in the home that led to increased aggressiveness in the child. Children who are spanked or subjected to other corporal punishment means in the home may arrive at school already programmed to be aggressive; corporal punishment in the schools only perpetuates this cycle of violence," the authors wrote at the time.

    More recent debate

    Last year a Kansas state lawmaker, a Democrat, drew national attention when she proposed expanding state law to allow bruising when parents administer corporal punishment.
    The debate picked up last fall after Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson was charged with reckless assault after injuring his 4-year-old son while disciplining him. In the midst of the debate, former NBA star Charles Barkley, said that "whooping" is something every black parent does.
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    "I'm from the South, whooping is, we do that all the time. Every black parent in the South is going to be in jail under those circumstances," Barkley told CBS News last September.
    Writing in 1995, Bush explained that the physical pain is not what effectively controls students, but instead the feeling of shame they experience.
    "The students of these schools will tell you, as will anybody who experienced corporal punishment in school, that it is not the brief spanking that hurts, but the accompanying shame. A senior valedictorian of one high school in Walton County told a reporter 'We feel ashamed when it happens to us, but when you're in that classroom and you want to learn and somebody else won't let you learn, well, they are dealt with,'" Bush wrote.
    The Children's Defense Fund, relying on the latest national numbers from U.S. Department of Education, determined that in the 2009-2010 school year, roughly 150,840 students were spanked or paddled in public schools throughout the nation. The most recent information available from the U.S. Department of Education is from the 2011-2012 school year, and only tallies information by school district and school.
    The most recent information from the the department's Civil Rights Data Collection show that in 2011, 16 Walton County schools used corporal punishment, ranging from as little as 41 instances in one school, to as much as 900 times during the school year in the Van R. Butler Elementary school.
    James McNulty, founder of Floridians Against Corporal Punishment in Public Schools, won a surprise victory against spanking supporters in Santa Rosa County last year. But his fight is moving county-by-county. To date, 24 out of Florida's 67 counties still allow corporal punishment in schools.
    "We're very aware of Jeb Bush and his stance on corporal punishment," McNulty said.

    Education is a signature issue for Bush

    Bush has made education a signature issue. While governor, he succeeded in driving through changes sought by conservative education reformers for decades -- including the establishment of school vouchers. And after leaving office he parlayed that work into a national network pushing similar measures in Statehouses throughout the nation.
    He has even stood by national Common Core education standards as other Republican candidates have emerged as opponents amid a national conservative backlash on the issue.
    But mentions of Bush's stance on corporal punishment outside his book are scarce. The Miami Herald reported in 1994, when Bush ran unsuccessfully for governor, that a group formed by televangelist Pat Robertson distributed pamphlets to voters listing Bush's support for corporal punishment, along with an array of issues including school prayer.
    At the time, Bush was running as a staunchly religious conservative. But after his narrow loss to Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles he toned that down some, including reversing his position to oppose school prayer "because he doesn't trust government to write the prayers," according to a 1995 Associated Press report.