A Supreme Court decision upholding a child's right to sue a school principal over corporal punishment could drastically reduce use of the paddle, not so much because of the courts but because of insurance companies, an expert says.
As a result of the court's decision last month, said Temple University psychology professor Irwin Hyman, "more cases will come to the courts, and insurance companies will question the use of corporal punishment in the schools and possibly raise rates for schools which practice it."The decision also means "teachers will now be more vulnerable to litigation" because the existence of a basis for legal challenge has been recognized, he said.
Hyman is director of Temple's National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and its Alternatives.
On March 21, the Supreme Court let stand without comment a New Mexico appeals court decision that said students could challenge excessive corporal punishment in the federal courts on the basis of their 14th Amendment right to due process.
That case was brought in U.S. District Court five years ago. It charged that Teresa Garcia, an elementary school student in Penasco, N.M., was seriously beaten twice.
Court documents said that in 1982, Teresa, then 9, was held upside down by a teacher and beaten severely with a paddle. She was bruised and scarred. She was beaten again the following year, the suit said.
The court ruled in the school's favor, but the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, saying that punishments that are "so grossly excessive as to be shocking to the conscience violate substantive due process rights."
The Supreme Court upheld the appeals court, clearing the way for the federal lawsuit to be tried on the issue of whether the punishment given Teresa was indeed excessive.
"This case sets a precedent which other district courts will look to" and apply in other jurisdictions, said John Roesler, a Santa Fe attorney who represented Teresa.
Though the case could bring insurance company pressure to bear on schoiol districts that practice paddling, Hyman said, there is still tradition to contend with.