Hanging Up The Paddle: 20 Years Since Washington Banned Corporal Punishment In Public Schools
Did you grow up in a school that allowed paddling? Maybe you knew someone who was hit in school – or maybe the idea of corporal punishment seems as antiquated as ink wells. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Washington’s state-wide ban on corporal punishment in public schools.
Jim Fugate has been on both sides of the wooden paddle. As a student in Bremerton he had a basketball coach who wore a paddle around his belt. And if you weren’t fast enough on the court, he’d use it. “It only took one whack on a sweaty rear-end to know there will never be a guy that will beat you to the baseline,” Fugate recalls. “That was a motivator, and it worked.”
When Fugate became an elementary school principal in the late ‘50s, he had a paddle of his own. It hung in his office in Ellensburg. Today, it hangs in his garage. It’s surrounded by awards and plaques that commemorate a long career in Washington’s public schools. “There’s your Educator,” Fugate says pointing to the dark wooden paddle. The words “The Educator” are stenciled across it in white paint. “That had a few backsides of a few boys along the way.”
Fugate says he only used it as a last resort. “Parents told me at times, 'It should have been the first thing you did, you could have saved us both a lot of trouble.' But of course, who likes to paddle a kid?”
Fugate reserved The Educator for serious misconduct. Like the boy who brought a shotgun to school. Or a sixth grade girl who brought a bottle of gin from home and was caught sharing it with other elementary students on the playground. Fugate called her mom. She said she was at a social function and too busy to come by the school.
So, Fugate told her, “Either you get up here right now, or I’m going to be down there with your daughter in 10 minutes.” The mother came quickly. They discussed what should be done to with the daughter, who had been in trouble many times before. “What’s it going to take?” Fugate recalls asking. “I’m out of other approaches.”
Her mother suggested that Fugate give the girl a “good spanking.”
So, Fugate brought out the paddle. He took the girl to the boiler room. “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you,” he told her. It was the same phrase he used with most of the kids he paddled. But this was the first time he had ever paddled a girl. She received four whacks. “I never had a boy that didn’t cry,” Fugate says. “But her? She never shed a tear.”
The girl had been hit at home, too. Her mom admitted it wasn’t doing any good, which made Fugate wonder whether the paddling at school would make a positive difference in her behavior. But he believes some of the other paddling sessions were effective in correcting discipline problems. “I never did paddle a kid twice,” he says.
Fugate hung up his paddle after becoming the superintendent of the Auburn School District. But he says at the time, he was fine with principals in the district paddling students, so long as the families approved. That was the ‘70s.
Robin Henderson remembers that time. He says corporal punishment was a daily ritual at Lakes Elementary in Thurston County where he went to school.
On The Hacking List
“The school day started with ‘the hacking’ as we called it,” Henderson says. “The swats that they administered really were very loud. The teachers were all instructed to leave their doors open so we would hear. It’s a very clear memory of my childhood, that sound. It was like the crack of a bat at a baseball game. And then after the last swat, the teachers would reach and close the door and the school day would begin.”
One day, Henderson’s name was on the hacking list. He doesn’t remember what he did to get in trouble. But he remembers what happened next.
“There were other boys lined up there, and I was the first. And they told me to bend all the way over and touch my toes. The teacher had sort of a little wind up thing he did, and he whacked me. It was amazingly painful. It was one of the most painful things that I had ever felt at that time. In fact, I actually screamed, which was humiliating.”
Child psychotherapist Robbyn Peters Bennett says this kind of punishment is not just humiliating, it’s completely counter productive. Peters Bennett is the founder of Bellingham-based StopSpanking.org.
“When a teacher hits a child in school, several things happen,” says Peters Bennett. “That child has a huge neurological stress response in the brain. Their pre-frontal cortex shuts down. They’re no longer thinking, problem solving, seeing cause and effect, experiencing empathy. Their lizard brain, or their lower brain, is now activated. The child might get vacant. They might disassociate slightly. So, you have basically made it so the child is less capable of self-regulation, of managing themselves and staying in their seat and following rules.”
Henderson agrees that getting hacked had the opposite effect of what was intended. “It certainly didn’t make me any better, and I think it probably made me worse,” he says. “It’s definitely a moment where my respect for authority dropped.”
That is just one reason why Henderson never paddled a student when he became a teacher in the ‘80s. It was a time when many schools in Washington were in the process of doing away with corporal punishment, but certainly not all of them. Not only was paddling still legal – it was still happening in the early ‘80s.
A Difficult Fight: State Ban On Corporal Punishment
That’s when a state legislator from Shoreline named Grace Cole took up the cause. She started pushing for a bill that would outlaw corporal punishment in public schools in Washington. But year after year, the bill got killed in the Senate.
“The Senate on the whole at that time is an older generation, so they had been spanked. So they didn’t see anything wrong with it,” says former legislator Ken Jacobsen. He represented North Seattle in the House and spent nearly a decade carpooling with Cole to Olympia. They talked about everything, including her corporal punishment ban that kept failing.
“It always amazed me,” Jacobsen says. “She was never in despair about it. She’d just come back the next year, start over again, climb the mountain again.” He says Cole was persistent. She said she knew that corporal punishment was wrong, even if Olympia didn’t agree with her yet. “As far as she’s concerned, all of us were a bunch of boys,” says Jacobsen. “Like a lot of moms, she had learned how to handle boys, and she was eventually going to get them all straightened out.”
For nearly a decade, Cole re-introduced the bill. And in 1993, she finally got the votes she needed. “That was the day everybody came over and shook her hand,” Jacobsen remembers. “I would think that’s the one thing she was proudest of. She had worked so hard for that bill. It was a combination of what she stood for and her persistence. Utter persistence.”
Grace Cole died in 2001. Her bill made Washington the 23rd state to ban corporal punishment in public schools. Today, 19 states still allow it.
In Washington, corporal punishment is still unregulated in private schools. Fugate says corporal punishment had its time and place, but he doesn’t want to see it brought back. He says it’s not needed.
And The Educator paddle he once used? It’s now just an artifact hanging next to all those other mementos representing nearly 40 years of school history in what he calls his garage museum.
Trailer for an upcoming documentary on corporal punishment in US schools.