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'Hitt' too hard: corporal punishment in public schools

Lana Hitt filed a report and pressed charges after her son Hunter was “beaten” with a paddle, while attending Eupora High School.

When Hunter Hitt came home from school, he couldn’t help but cry as he told his mother what had happened to him. That day, 12-year-old Hunter had received a paddling at school for fighting with another student in his class. The fight was Hunter’s first disciplinary offense at Eupora High School, and James Courtney, a coach at the school, was the instructor who inflicted the punishment.

“I received three licks for the fight,” Hunter said. “I don’t remember much about the actual paddling, just that it hurt, and Coach Courtney swung it like a baseball bat.”

When Hunter’s mother, Lana, saw the bruises on her son, she took him to the emergency room, where doctors documented his injuries. The bruises extended from Hunter’s backside down to the back of his knees.

“After realizing how severe the punishment was, I became extremely upset,” Lana said. “I am perfectly fine with corporal punishment in schools, but my son was beaten.”

The morning after the incident, the Hitt family filed a statement with Webster County law enforcement.

“As a mother, when something like this happens to your child, your first reaction is to play mama bear and do something about it,” she said.

Lana also set up an appointment with Webster County superintendent of education Jimmy Pittman and Eupora High School Principal Lundy Brantley.

According to Lana Hitt, in the meeting Brantley said he had already spoken with the coach who paddled Hunter and with the two required witnesses and that everything involved with Hunter’s punishment had been done according to school procedure, with one exception.

The incident, which occurred on May 2, 2012, was not properly documented until the next day.

“After hearing what the superintendent and principal had to say, I proceeded to show them the picture of Hunter’s bruises and asked them if that was acceptable in their school,” she said. “(Brantley’s) comment to me was that everybody bruises differently.”

According to Eupora High School’s policy on corporal punishment, in order for a student to be corporally punished in school, a parent must sign a waiver stating that the child can be paddled. If a parent doesn’t sign the waiver, the school immediately places the child on the “no paddle” list.

“It is the parents’ job to discipline their children,” Brantley said. “When their children are at school, it is our job to discipline them when necessary. Lana Hitt signed a waiver stating that her child could be physically punished. Therefore, according to school policy, Courtney followed the rules.”

According to The Center for Effective Discipline, approximately 220,000 students receive corporal punishment each year. While 29 states have banned the practice in schools, Mississippi and 20 others still allow some form of corporal punishment. Mississippi alone paddles more than 38,000 students a year.

“The debate of whether or not to corporally punish in schools is based around whether or not physical pain can ever be justifiable,” said Fannye

Love, associate dean of the School of Education and professor of curriculum and instruction at The University of Mississippi-Desoto Center.

Love said that the issue of paddling or spanking children is less about punishment itself and more about punishment as a means of education.

“Are the effects of corporal punishment positive or negative?” Love said.

“Well, each child is different. Therefore, they can be affected differently by different forms of punishment. There is so much gray area when dealing with the punishment of students in schools that school instructors and leaders must be very cautious in deciding whether or not it is appropriate and necessary to perform physical punishment.”

Love, who specializes in classroom management, said that when performed correctly, corporal punishment can be effective for some students, but serious physical and psychological injuries can occur when strategic corporal punishment becomes child abuse.

“Punishment and harm are not the same thing,” she said. “There is a strict line between the two, and to ignore it is deliberately misleading.”

The Hitt family felt that line was crossed in Hunter’s case, so they pressed charges against Courtney and took the issue to the school board. Lana said the board meeting was a frustrating experience.

“The members of the school board did not say one word to me,” Lana said. “I was told that they were advised by their lawyers not to say anything to me or ask me any questions.”

A week later, Pittman called to say the board had decided not to take any action on the matter. Soon after, the Webster County prosecutor took the case to a grand jury; the jury declined to indict.

Courtney, who is still employed with Eupora High School, is no longer facing charges. Hunter is now home-schooled by his mother and grandmother, and Lana is still speaking with lawyers about suing in civil court.

Lana and Hunter said they have absolutely no regrets about their decision to take action against James Courtney and Eupora High School.

“Although I don’t really feel I got justice for my son yet, I hope that my actions against the school have a positive effect,” she said. “I hope that my voice has gotten attention and that instructors will think before they just start swinging.”