Gail Finney, Kansas Lawmaker, Says Corporal Punishment Bill Is Not Legalizing Child Abuse; GOP Vows Opposition

By John Celock

Republican Kansas state lawmakers are pushing back against a Democrat’s legislation that would define corporal punishment against children and allow parents to give teachers permission to spank students.

Republicans said that legislation proposed Friday by Rep. Gail Finney (D-Wichita) that would define “parental corporal punishment” and allow for parents to give consent to teachers to spank children contains too many “what-ifs.” Under Finney’s proposal, 10 “forceful applications in succession” of an open-handed palm against clothed buttocks of a child would be allowed. Finney has said the bill is needed to provide a clearer definition of legitimate punishment vs. child abuse. She said she is not trying to legalize child abuse.

“It is not a solid definition,” state Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) told The Celock Report, noting that he does not oppose parent’s being able to spank. “It limits to 10 but is that 10 in sequence and then a pause and then 10 again. This is a dangerous direction to go in.”

Claeys also expressed concern over allowing teachers to administer corporal punishment, which is currently allowed under state law.

“I don’t believe that teachers should be allowed to strike a child in their care,” he said.

Rep. Brett Hildabrand (R-Shawnee), a corrections committee member, told The Celock Report that the language of the bill has raised concerns from him and other lawmakers.

“There are a lot of what-ifs with this bill,” he said. “There are things that make a lot of people nervous.”

Republicans indicated that the corrections committee chairman said that the committee is unlikely to consider the bill.

A statement Finney posted on her website Tuesday evening stated that she is attempting to provide a clearer definition. Under the terms of the legislation, introduced late last week provides an in-depth definition of spanking, including that it is limited to 10 “forceful” spanks to the clothed buttocks of a child. The bill would also allow parents to provide written consent to allow teachers to spank in order to “maintain authority or discipline” students.

“This legislation is intended to (i) provide guidance to state officials in the administrative and judicial branches; (ii) serve as a guideline to parents; and (iii) protect Kansas children from abuse,” Finney wrote on her website. “This legislation is not, as has been incorrectly reported, intended to legalize child abuse in Kansas.”

Finney said in the statement that officials from the state Department of Children and Families, along with teachers, attorneys and parents have expressed concern over the current language in state law regarding corporal punishment for children. She said the current language does not draw a clear line between lawful punishment and child abuse.

Corporal punishment is currently legal in Kansas schools but Finney stressed that it is not well defined, along with the general corporal punishment that parents can administer. Twenty states nationwide allow corporal punishment in schools.

Finney introduced the bill based on a suggestion from Britt Colle, a deputy county attorney in McPherson County. Colle has reiterated similar comments to Finney in public statements. In written testimony that Colle plans to deliver to the state House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee if the bill gets a hearing, Colle stresses the need for parental rights and briefly discusses allowing teachers to spank. The testimony was posted online by the Topeka Capitol-Journal.

In his planned testimony, Colle said that current state law could allow state child protection officials to use redness from disciplinary spanking as the basis for child abuse charges. He said this prevents parents from using spanking as a disciplinary tool. He also says that current law prevents parents from physically handling their child to assert authority. Among the examples he provided are wrestling a cell phone away from a child to prevent sexting or physically taking a child out of bed in order to go to school. He also touches on restraining a child to prevent them from staying out late at night.

Under the terms of the legislation, physical restraint by parents in order to administer spanking or to assert authority would be allowed. The bill does prohibit the use of a fist or another object as a way to spank a child.

“Right now the law seems to favor lenient parents from breaking the rules and the law,” Colle wrote.

In his testimony, Colle said the bill would allow teachers to use spanking to control “serious violations” of school rules and have to worry about lawsuits from parents. He did not define what a serious violation would be.

Finney’s legislation was introduced Friday, the same day that Republicans in the state Senate blocked a GOP-sponsored religious freedom bill that Democrats had said would increase discrimination against the LGBT population in the state. With Kansas practice having committees listed as bill sponsors, led to speculation that it was a conservative Republican bill.

“We are equal opportunity when it comes to silly legislation,” Claeys told The Celock Report.

Claeys said part of the issue is that lawmakers routinely propose legislation that is suggested to them by anyone in the state. He said this could lead to random legislation and suggested that outside groups could try to harm legislators politically.

“Anyone can file a bill, it could be someone off the street,” Claeys said. “We tend to be polite to our determinant. Anyone off the street can file a bill and the Legislature gets blamed for it. You can use it as a means of sabotage. A group of people can come in and introduce wacky bills and the Legislature gets blamed.”