An East Texas principal was arrested after paddling a student, renewing debate over corporal punishment

An East Texas high school principal was arrested after he paddled a female student. Under the school district’s guidelines, the Overton High School student and her family initially consented to the punishment rather than in-school suspension. Credit: Pu YIng Huang for The Texas Tribune

By Pooja Salhotra, The Texas Tribune

A high school principal in East Texas was arrested last week after paddling a student, causing her bodily injury and sparking national headlines that renewed the debate over whether corporal punishment belongs in schools.

Texas is one of just 17 states that allow corporal punishment — which includes hitting, spanking, paddling or deliberately inflicting pain to discipline students — in its public schools. Texas educators can use physical means of punishment if the school district’s board of trustees adopts a policy allowing it. Parents can opt their child out of receiving corporal punishment by providing written notice to the district.

Texas lawmakers have long discussed a ban on the practice, which dates back to the 19th century. Only a decade ago, lawmakers in Austin added a provision that allows a parent to opt their child out of corporal punishment. State lawmakers debated the controversial practice this year after Rep. Alma Allen, a Houston Democrat and former public school teacher, carried a bill that would prohibit public school employees from using corporal punishment on students.

Education advocates and child development experts argued that the practice inflicts fear and negative mental health impacts on students. Lawmakers rejected the policy shift, with several Republican lawmakers advocating for keeping the practice because it is referenced in the Bible.

Nationally, the number of students who receive corporal punishment has declined significantly in recent years. A U.S. Education Department report found that the number of students who received corporal punishment dropped by more than one-third between the 2013-14 school year and the 2017-18 school year, the most recent data available.

In March, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona urged governors and school leaders to ban corporal punishment in schools. In a letter, he encouraged districts to replace the practice with evidence-based methods, such as positive behavioral interventions. Two states, Colorado and Idaho, passed bills this year to ban the disciplinary practice. And U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, has introduced a federal bill to prohibit corporal punishment in any school that receives federal funding.

Although the practice is legal in Texas, Overton High School principal Jeffery Hogg was arrested Wednesday on one count of assault in relation to the incident that occurred on Aug. 14. According to the arrest affidavit, Hogg hit a female student on the butt three times using a wooden paddle to discipline the student for an undisclosed infraction. The student, whose name has not been released, had visible bruising at least 48 hours after the paddling and reported a complaint with the Rusk County Sheriff’s Office.

The case has been referred to the Rusk District Attorney’s Office and is currently being investigated. Hogg has not been formally charged and has returned to his duties as principal.

Overton is home to about 2,300 people. It sits nearly 22 miles east of Tyler.

Overton Independent School District Superintendent Larry Calhoun defended Hogg, saying he acted in accordance with school district policies. In a statement posted on the district’s Facebook page last month after Hogg punished the student, the district said it would reflect on current corporal punishment policies, which are set by the school board. But Calhoun told The Texas Tribune on Monday that the district is not currently considering any changes to its policy.

“We want to get to the other side of this and to be able to reflect objectively,” Calhoun said, adding that he regretted that this incident was garnering attention, as opposed to more positive district news. “I wish we could just let the investigation take its course, but it has become a frenzy on social media and elsewhere.”

It’s unclear what the female student was being punished for. However, per the school district’s policy on corporal punishment laid out in the school handbook, the student had the option to undergo paddling or be sent to in-school suspension. The student chose paddling and the student’s parent and another female witness remained in the room, according to arresting documents. After receiving two hits, the student said she was hurt and didn’t want the third hit, the affidavit states. Both Hogg and the student’s mother encouraged the student to complete the punishment, and the student decided to follow through and receive the third hit.

The following day, the student was interviewed at the Child Advocacy Center, a statewide organization that supports victims of child abuse, and examined by a nurse who took photographs of the injuries, which included substantial bruising and swelling. A forensic pediatrician who evaluated the photographs said that physical punishment that results in injuries that last longer than 24 hours is consistent with child physical abuse.

Parents in Overton ISD, which serves about 470 students, have defended Hogg on social media and questioned why he was arrested even though the student’s parent was present for the punishment.

“If a student is a distraction in class then yes I believe they deserve corporal punishment,” Autumn Holland, who has two sons in Overton schools, said in an interview with The Texas Tribune. “I’m a firm believer in the Bible and it says ‘spare not the rod.”

Holland said one of her sons has received paddling once and she doesn’t think it caused him to suffer bruises or other injuries. Holland questioned why the student’s parent would not have intervened if the principal was in fact being too aggressive with the hits. And she said that if the principal was arrested, the parent should have also been held accountable.

Craig Sweeney, an investigator in the Rusk County district attorney’s office said he had never seen a corporal punishment case brought to his office and that many districts have done away with the practice in recent years.

According to federal data from the 2017-18 school year — the most recent year for which data is available — 8,758 Texas schools used corporal punishment on 13,892 Texas students. That number of students is higher than in any other state aside from Mississippi.

A significant body of research has found that corporal punishment does not benefit students and can cause them substantial harm, including worse mental health, increased aggression and antisocial behavior, and increased likelihood of abusing one’s own children.

“I sympathize with the principal who said he is trying to teach students — I understand that’s the goal,” said Elizabeth Gershoff, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied the effects of corporal punishment on children. “But the only thing hitting children teaches them is that A, if you are powerful you can hit people to get what you want and B, you should try to avoid being around those people.”

Allen’s office has told the Tribune that the lawmaker would bring a bill to ban corporal punishment during the next legislative session if she’s asked.

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