Beating Children: Still Normal in Accelerated Christian Education?

Beating Children: Still Normal in Accelerated Christian Education? July 13, 2012

In 2001, the BBC reported that the British parents of one ACE homeschooler had been convicted for child cruelty.

“The jury had heard that the youngster, now 15, was made to live under a strict regime which included fasting to cleanse his body and regular punishment for failing to carry out chores.

“The court heard that the boy, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was made to kill his pet chickens and stand outside for hours in freezing weather with no socks on.

“They had taught the youngster at home since he was 10 under the “Accelerated Christian Education” system and he had experienced little contact with the outside world.”

The biggest concern with all fundamentalist schools is their propensity for physical abuse of children. While I’m sure even my old educators would condemn this level of abuse, in reality, the difference is not that great. This is just the extreme conclusion of a theology that believes children are evil by nature, and that physical punishment is the solution.

In 1999, spanking was banned in British private schools. Does that mean that no spanking is occurring today? There is reason to suspect it may be.

In the past, the ACE Procedures Manual had clear instructions on how to spank children. Today, it contains only a veiled reference, in the form of some quotations from Proverbs which mention the rod. Similarly, Christian Education Europe, who once enthusiastically endorsed spanking in an interview with the Catholic Herald, now only make some euphemistic remarks. On their “About Us” page, under the subheading “Control and Discipline” (control), they say “The Bible has some unfashionable but necessary teaching in this area.” You must realise that, for conservative Christians, “discipline” is almost always a euphemism for spanking (David Berliner notes that spanking evangelist James Dobson uses discipline almost exclusively in this way). Christian Education Europe goes on to cite Hebrews 12:5-11, a passage which is frequently quoted as a New Testament endorsement of the rod.

I suspect the reason for the euphemistic language is that school spankings are now illegal in the majority of territories where ACE is sold. This does not mean such punishments are a thing of the past. ACE schools are very good at obeying the letter of the law without following its spirit. My school ran a discipline policy that required parents to come in and paddle their own children if the teachers deemed it necessary. If parents declined, their children could not attend the school. Emmanuel Private School, South Africa, does the same thing, according to its school handbook. The Branch Christian School is one British school running a similar policy.

Noted anthropologist Alan Peshkin did an ethnographic study of a fundamentalist Christian school in the 1980s. His book, God’s Choice, quotes the school’s headmaster as saying (p. 108), “We’d close down before we gave up the paddling policy.”

Many conservative Christian schools feel the same. In her PhD thesis, Sylvia Baker of the Christian Schools’ Trust describes how a coalition of Christian schools appealed against the ban on spanking. They took their appeal first to the European Court of Human Rights, and to the House of Lords (the British equivalent of the Supreme Court). Baker makes it clear (pp. 89-90) that Christian schools viewed the law as an infringement of their religious liberty.

In the face of the new law, Christian Education Europe, distributors of the ACE curriculum, held a protest rally in London (BBC news report linked). The speakers were Americans Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo, who advocate spanking babies up to five times a day from the age of 18 months. Christian Education Europe view spanking as intrinsic to good child rearing; it’s an essential component of their educational philosophy.

Frank Peretti’s million-selling Christian novel, Piercing the Darkness, is about the Christian “right to spank.” Described by the publisher as “chillingly realistic”, the novel tells the tale of a Christian school, threatened with closure for beating children. The book details the resulting court case, which is depicted as a Satanic attack on the church. In it, the head teacher seriously discusses continuing to spank children against the law. He cites the example of Apostle Paul’s imprisonment for preaching the Gospel as Scriptural precedent for civil disobedience.

At least one Accelerated Christian Education school has a record of breaking the law for its spiritual convictions. In 1977, Faith Baptist Church started an ACE school without state approval. Alan Peshkin’s Inside America’s Christian Schools describes the story, and you can read the pastor’s firsthand account here. In short, the court ordered the school closed. The school continued to operate, so the state padlocked the school. They still found a way to run, so the pastor was jailed for contempt of court. Some parents were also jailed. In the end, it seems the state just gave up and let them have the school.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this case, the school founders did not care about following the law. Biblically, they had some support. Acts 5:29 says, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” That’s not the only case of an ACE head teacher being prepared to go to jail rather than change methods. So there is some justification for concern that a ban may not mean the end of paddling in ACE schools.

Of course, in some schools, paddling still happens openly. A cursory web search for “Accelerated Christian Education” and “paddle” brings up the discipline policies of many schools, and plenty of them list their paddling procedure. In each case, it’s almost word-for-word the same because it’s taken from the School of Tomorrow Procedures Manual. This is the version offered by Victory Christian Academy, Florida:

1.   The offense will be investigated and then thoroughly discussed with the student.

2.   A staff member will discuss spiritual applications with student.

3.   A reasonable number of firm strokes, not to exceed 3, will be administered at school by staff member using a simple, flat paddle.  Students 7th Grade and above will be paddled by a member of the same sex.

4.   A staff witness will be present.

5.   A student will not be physically restrained.

6.   After applying the strokes, the person administering the correction will pray with student and assure him/her of their love.

7.   A written report will be made of the date, offense, and number of strokes, name of individual administering the correction, and name of staff witness. A copy of the report will be sent home to parent and one will be placed in the student’s permanent record.

Note:  When Corporal Correction is deemed necessary, it will be administered as soon as possible after the offense to ensure effectiveness.  Parents are not notified prior to a paddling.

You’ll find this policy repeated almost verbatim at various Christian school websites, because it’s lifted from an old edition of the School of Tomorrow Procedures Manual. The only usual variations are in the maximum number of strokes (three is typical, but I’ve seen up to seven), and whether the parents will be notified before or after the paddling.

Personally, I am repulsed by the notion that violence against children can ever be justified. If flogging were reinstated as a punishment for adults, it would rightly be said that our society had become less civilised. Some people seem to think, though, that it might be justified in its use on children.

I accept that not all of my readers agree with my blanket view that spanking is immoral. Those who think it may have occasional legitimate applications, however, should be alarmed by the frequency with which it turns into more serious abuse (and the distinction between the two is blurry at best). Anglican Priest Stephen Parsons, in his book Ungodly Fear, describes one family’s experience in an ACE school as “one of abuse from top to bottom.”

That, I think, captures it precisely. The problem is the doctrine that children are evil, that they are “desperately wicked” at heart (Jeremiah 17:9). They believe that this is God’s ultimate word, so they will not enter into discussion. It’s the most clear-cut case I can think of where religion makes good people do evil things.

In a future post, I’ll discuss some of the physical abuses I’ve seen which are unrelated to spankings. That type of abuse is not specifically proscribed by law, and the teachers clearly did not think of it as abuse. It strikes me that this is the type of abuse most likely to be continuing today.

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