Cover Story

The death of discipline?

Children must still cringe at the parental phrase, "This will hurt me more than it hurts you." But these days, it's literally true: The pain of a lawsuit lingers long after the disciplinary lash has faded from memory.

Issue: "The death of discipline?," June 26, 1999

For Leah Carr, June 4 was supposed to be one of the biggest days of her young life. Like the other seniors at Dove Christian Academy in Radcliff, Ky., she was looking forward to marching down the aisle, receiving her diploma, and turning her tassel.

There's just one problem: Leah is pregnant. Since she clearly broke the school's rule against fornication, the board concluded that she had to be disciplined. As punishment, she was stripped of her title as valedictorian and barred from graduation ceremonies. She'll still get her diploma, but none of the usual pomp and circumstance that goes along with it.

Leah was crushed. Her mother was furious. "I'm very angry and very hurt by this," Lisa Carr told the Associated Press. "She's made a mistake and there is a consequence for sins, but Jesus never attached any conditions on forgiveness."

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If bad press is the worst of the fallout for Dove Christian Academy, school officials should count themselves blessed. The wages of sin may still be death, but in late-20th-century America, the wages of discipline, all too often, is litigation.

In families, schools-even in churches-unrepentant troublemakers are increasingly unlikely to accept what used to be known as their "just deserts." Instead, they turn to the courts to protect them from the consequences of their actions. Such lawsuits make it harder for other parents, principals, and pastors to administer the discipline they feel is necessary. With a legal Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, would-be disciplinarians may be sorely tempted to wink at bad behavior.

The recent tragedy in Littleton, Colo., prompted a flurry of debate over public-school discipline. About half the states have outlawed spanking altogether in government schools, but teachers are loath to administer even lesser forms of discipline for fear of lawsuits. In Michigan alone, some 85 lawsuits were filed in 1998 against teachers trying to maintain order in the classroom.

In Louisiana things have gotten so out of hand that the Democratic legislature has voted by large margins to require public-school students to address their teachers as "Sir" or "Ma'am" and to use the proper courtesy title-Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms. Experts say it's the first time a state law has mandated at least a veneer of respect in conversation.

National politicians, too, have started to tap into voter frustration at a younger generation that often seems out of control. In a major policy speech in California last month, former Vice President Dan Quayle blasted what he termed the "legal aristocracy," arguing that it had "undermined parental authority over children, weakened discipline in the schools, and obstructed the moral education of the young."

For example, the Massachusetts Supreme Court agreed in April to hear an appeal from a Woburn pastor who was barred by a lower court from spanking his young son with a belt. The legal aristocracy got involved in that case when the son asked his elementary-school teacher not to send a note home because he was afraid of a spanking. The teacher reported the "child abuse" to the Department of Social Services, which in turn took the pastor to court.

But not all the blame can be laid at the feet of lawyers and judges, according to James Dobson, who has been observing disciplinary patterns since the 1970 publication of his bestseller, Dare to Discipline. Americans can't sort out their attitudes toward discipline, he says, because they are still not sure how they feel about authority. The late '60s gave rise to the "greatest assault on authority ever seen in a short period of time," Mr. Dobson says. Police, army, parents, professors-all were seen as forms of authority to be defied. "God himself was rejected. That was about as far as the pendulum could go. Disrespect for leadership touched every facet of society.

"We're now seeing the aftermath of all that. The man sitting in the White House is a product of his time.... The judges' decisions are a function of the lack of respect for authority. People permit that because it reflects a lot of the attitudes that are out there."

Indeed, parents all too often become the allies of the legal aristocracy rather than its victims. Supporters of discipline in the abstract, these parents turn to the courts when discipline is applied to their own children.

The Solid Rock Christian Academy in Riverdale, Ga., is a case in point. When Judith Lyon, the school's founder, spanked 11-year-old Devin Baxton for misbehaving in class, the boy's parents lodged a complaint and Ms. Lyon was barred from the school grounds for more than a year while investigators weighed a criminal case of child cruelty. District Attorney Bob Keller finally dropped the charges last year when he decided that the spanking was "administered in good faith and was not excessive or unduly severe." But the Baxtons would not be placated. They have now filed a civil suit seeking unspecified monetary damages for "intentional and/or negligent infliction of emotional distress" on young Devin.

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