50 Shades of Grey or Goofy Grammar School Principal?

Hey Readers — Here’s a really wacky story from Iowa. An elementary school principal, Terry Eisenbarth, was investigated for “whapping”  kids as part of their birthday celebrations at school — that is, hitting the kids lightly with a super-padded paddle.
Sounds like one of those things that just becomes a goofy tradition, but in our abuse-crazed culture, I’m sure you can guess what happened next: Even though only the kids who WANTED a whapping got one, two families objected to the practice as if the principal was practicing bondage and discipline (in plain sight of the other kids, and teachers, and possibly a pinata).  An investigation began, the principal resigned, and a year later,  here’s what the judge decided:

In a ruling dated June 14, administrative law Judge Robert Wheeler dismissed the charges of physical abuse against a student, failure to protect students’ health and safety and exposing students to unnecessary embarrassment or disparagement.

Whether those “whaps” were harmless fun or psychologically damaging formed the bulk of the complaint, with several parents alleging the birthday ritual was an attempt by Eisenbarth to “establish his dominance and cause the children to act submissively.”

But more parents came out to support the former principal, testifying that the experience was harmless and optional, enjoyed by those who opted in and witnessed by other students and staff.

Principals Steve Brand of Mount Vernon High and Noreen Colbeck-Bush of Mount Vernon Middle School testified on Eisenbarth’s behalf, saying their own children had participated in the birthday ritual and neither of them considered the practice abusive.

Colbeck-Bush said parents who objected did so because the birthday “whaps” appeared to resemble disciplinary “spankings,” but that she easily distinguished between the two behaviors. Brand said he’d observed Eisenbarth at work as part of professional rounds of Washington Elementary and found him to be a good administrator.

… After conducting a criminal investigation, Sergeant Harvey Hall of the Linn County Sheriff’s Office determined no children were traumatized by the “whappings,” and no crime had taken place.

Hey, I’ll bet SOMEONE was traumatized — the principal! To have his public, offbeat ritual called a psychologically damaging form of child abuse is like  calling a high five “hand-to-hand combat,” or a backslap a “beating.” But during a year of investigation, that’s the soul-crushing cloud he was under. Kudos to a sergeant and judge who were able to distinguish between silliness and sadism.  You’d think that would be pretty easy, but in a culture beloved of Worst-First thinking (a man, a kid, a pat — SEX ABUSE!), it takes guts to stand up for what’s right.  Whap on! — L.
(Only picture of a principal I could find.)

47 Responses

  1. like calling a high five “hand-to-hand combat,” or a backslap a “beating.” — In my neices’ middle school those acts actually are banned as “possible bullying” SMH

  2. How sad. I live about 10 minutes away from Mt. Vernon and had never even heard about this controversy. I’m not sure I’d ever do anything resembling hitting in a school setting, but one would hope that a close knit community like Mt. Vernon would know each other well enough to make an informed judgment of character.

    Did they ever simply ask him to change the tradition? Seems much more sensible than a humiliating investigation.

  3. And of course, the assumption is that the CHILDREN, little darlings, can’t tell the difference between a “whap” and a disciplinary beating. Yet these are the same kids who are supposed to understand all sorts of subtle social cues from the age of two, or we put them on the autism spectrum.

  4. Birthday taps are an age old tradition in rural America.

    I had a teacher who used a honest to goodness wooden paddle rather than a padded one (what fun is that) for the birthday taps. Fun for everyone involved.

  5. That just makes me sad. 😦 A fun loving principal like that is the kind of administrator our schools and our kids NEED! I’m so tired of people not using their brains to assess the ACTUAL risk or behavior in situations like this. So frustrating.

  6. Cynthia – you make an excellent point! Parents are assuming that their kids can’t understand the difference – once more telling them that they’re too stupid to know what’s going on. And yet we label them disabled, or autistic, or whatever the name du jour is. And note that it isn’t the KIDS who were complaining. It’s only the parents.

  7. *sigh* I get so tired of seeing this kind of stupidity. Birthday smacks were ALWAYS a tradition when I was in elementary school. This was in a time when genuine disciplinary paddlings were allowed, too. Believe you me, we could most definitely tell the difference!

  8. What annoys me most is that this could go to trial. If anyone bothered to properly interview the kids beforehand, the case could’ve been dismissed before it even started. And now a principal is jobless..

    Well done justice system! (sarcasm)

  9. I am incredibly saddened by the black mark on this principal that he felt the need to resign. Why did this even go to trial? I can only hope we have not lost ANOTHER good, honest educator to this fear-mongering by confused parents.

  10. “If anyone bothered to properly interview the kids beforehand, the case could’ve been dismissed before it even started.’

    Well, only if the assumption of those reviewing the interviews isn’t the standard “Kids are suppressing something if they say it was no big deal, but they’re unimpeachable reporters if they claim harm was done.”

  11. This story is pretty telling of the desire to put everything into black and white and ignore every shade of gray. I think the worst quote in there was that the purported way this would be psychologically abusive. That some parents thought the principal might be trying to “establish his dominance and cause the children to act submissively.”

    I’m sorry… what?

    First of all… this wouldn’t generate dominance/submission anyhow. But even assuming it could generate a miniscule amount.
    The dynamic is only a problem in the extremes. I.e. as you approach the absolute dominance of a despotic power, and absolute submission of abused and manipulated victims. Sort of a Miss Trunchbull using the chokey dynamic. But some level of dominance and some level of submission themselves as problems? NO. The principal and teachers at a school need to be in charge (you know a little dominant), and the children need to follow the reasonable instructions given to them (you know submit to that authority). With out that dynamic, how on earth are the teachers to get the kids back to the classroom after recess? Or keep them from constantly hitting each other? Or keep them from just running out of the classroom and into the street?

  12. The thing that bothers me most, as an educator, is that an administrator who was interacting with the children in a fun, friendly manner (especially since these “whaps” were not compulsory) has been dragged through the mud and forced to resign. A (seemingly) good, caring, approachable administrator will not be able to work in his chosen field again. And for what? For daring to joke around with the kids?

    (That being said, if I were him, I would never have done that sort of birthday celebration. I don’t think there is anything wrong with it, I just would have assumed that something like this would happen. It’s sad, really, really sad.)

  13. I give my kids “love taps” (on their butts or heads) all the time. It’s the way I say goodbye when I drop them off at school, for example. Once I saw a kid looking wide-eyed at me doing that, and I explained what it was. My kids love it. I also “beat” my kids if they “hurt my girl” (hurt themselves). We use the word “beat” in fun. I also “spank” for real. Amazingly, my kids are intelligent enough to tell the difference between a love tap and actual corporal discipline. Should I have them tested for MENSA?

    (I told their teacher all about these “corporal” practices early on in KG, lest the kids say something concerning and she feel the need to act on it. We live in that kind of world!)

    So here I am bemoaning the fact that they made corporal punishment illegal in schools in my state, and we have parents who think their kids are going to be ruined for life at the mere thought of a tap on the butt. Come on, people. How do your kids ever watch classic movies and such, where kids get man-handled all the time? I assume you’re not going to let them read any classics, either. Tom Sawyer? Oliver Twist? Ugh.

    I feel so badly for that principal. Why in the world did it take so long for this matter to get resolved? It should have been handled in a few days at most.

  14. That reminds me of the scene from Little House in the Big Woods where Laura Ingalls gets a gentle spanking on her fifth birthday; one for each year and one to grow on.

  15. This is so pathetic! People need to get their heads out of their rear end and take a look around. The world is crumbling and people like these overly sensitive parents are part of the reason for it and why I had to post a warning to sensitive people to x out of my blog this morning!

  16. Eh. I always hated those birthday whacks and noogies. But people made me feel like the biggest spoilsport wuss if I didn’t submit. This was a stupid ritual.

    Also, the article says the superintendent told him to knock it off In February 2011, before anyone complained, because the practice could be interpreted as abusive by some parents. I’m assuming he kept doing it anyway.

    This shouldn’t have been dragged into court, but spanking kids with a paddle, even in a fun way, was always going to end like that. There are plenty of other fun ways to celebrate kids’ birthdays.

  17. My grandad used to put us in the ‘spanking machine’, ie over the knee and a fun old smack. He also used to tickle us until we begged no more. I am 40 years old and my grandad died when I was 25. I miss him still.

  18. Oh yes, the beating machine! The kids used to beg for that.

    And my sister is always commenting on how this or that would “make a good beating stick.”

    If my kids weren’t so spoiled and cheeky, I guess we could be accused of terrorizing them.

  19. My dad was notorious for making extravagant threats about the beatings and punishments we were going to get (one of his favorite expressions was “knock that off before I knock you off!”) and my brother and I would just laugh, knowing he wasn’t serious. In reality, we almost never got even a minor spanking, except for the annual birthday smacks, which always came with “a pinch to grow an inch and a sock to grow a block” at the end.

  20. I’m happy that there are some level-head parents out there that stood up for the principal! I would like to think that most people would be able to distinguish between punishment and abuse or a funny, good time ritual of birthday whappings. It’s sad that a man who is probably really good at his job, was pretty much forced to resign because some parents can’t distinguish fun from grossness.

  21. The paddy-whack machine for your birthday is an old tradition. We LOVED it and so do my children.
    My inner goddess weeps at what was implied here…that this principal did anything wrong.

  22. I don’t see anything wrong with what the principal did (as in, light “birthday taps” with a padded hockey stick, which couldn’t possibly hurt), but I’ve never heard of this ritual before. When I was in school (and even in choir in university), we just sang to people on their birthdays. That doesn’t raise any eyebrows, even from the most litigious people, and it’s still fun.

  23. We did (and do) the birthday swats in our family, too. I don’t know how wide-spread it is, but I guess if people honestly didn’t know about the tradition, I could see how they would think it was weird. (My friend from India was like “WHAT?”)

    I understand those who say the guy should probably have avoided the issue all together and just not gone there in today’s world. But the fact is that he did, and he meant absolutely no harm, and the punishment was way in excess of the mistake.

    At some point, if adults are going to be placed in charge of other people’s children, they are going to have to be allowed to touch them – whether to comfort, to encourage, to restrain, or sometimes even to show a healthy kind of love. I think it’s scary that some apparently sane people think otherwise.

  24. There’s a little more to the story: http://thegazette.com/2011/06/04/washington-whapping-just-the-tip-of-the-iceberg/

    If the charges in the article are accurate at all, it sounds like a case of a complete jerk suffering an overreaction to the “whappings” because people were fed up with him.

    I worked with someone like this early in my career. It was a nightmare. When he was eventually fired for something that was not in the least his fault, nobody cared. We just celebrated.

    However, none of the above means that I think that anyone should be prosecuted for something so ridiculous.

  25. I too endured a sadistic rite of passage – when after a year of study of all things mechanical, electrical and nuclear and a mindboggling peer examination the commanding officer pinned the twin-dolphin insignae of the submarine service on me most of my shipmates “pinned them on” with a light tap on the chest. One of the missile techs, being barely primate as most of that rating is, tapped hard enough for a light bruise. Oh, the agony…. in the new Navy I understand that this kind of hazing has been banned. Wimps.

    But – taking a notion from the wingnuts who constantly comment at my local daily – the real danger to our children is pinatas. Asd my xenophobic co-Houstonians point out at every opportunity, anything Mexican is a threat to real Americans, and if we teach little kids to hit paper-mache Barneys with a stick they will grow up to speak Spanish and batter reptiles. (Compared to some of the comments I read in the Houston Chronicle, this is actually a rational point of view.)

  26. Jim – that is interesting that such xenophobic views are shared so openly in Houston. I mean, when I took my mom there on the way to pick up my kids, she commented that she felt like she was in a different country, since most of the people look Mexican. So it seems rather odd that any Houstonians believe being around anything Mexican is going to change who they are. Now around here (a Northern city) there are probably people who would buy that, but they would have better sense than to publish that thought.

    But here’s a funny. When I was waiting on my babies’ adoption (from Latin America), someone cautioned me against exposing my kids to Spanish once they got home. The concern was that years later, if they spoke Spanish with a good accent, people would assume their English skills were sub-par and discriminate against them in school. I said, I do plan on teaching them English too, and I am sure they would have enough sense to speak English when they go to school and meet their teacher and classmates. ??? Just another example of how people make up fears on no basis whatsoever.

  27. “I understand those who say the guy should probably have avoided the issue all together and just not gone there in today’s world. But the fact is that he did, and he meant absolutely no harm, and the punishment was way in excess of the mistake.”

    Yep, you do kind of have to wonder why this guy didn’t clue in that someone was going to be upset about this, but nonetheless he did nothing actually WRONG.

  28. Obviously a “birthday bump” ritual is not abuse. However, from the article posted above, it is unclear what the whole story was here. Was it a great principle, who was railroaded? Or was it a twit, and this was a convenient excuse to get rid of him. It is so hard to get rid (fire) people for incompetence nowadays, that people look for other excuses.

  29. SKL – Nope, having lived in Southern California for many years, anti-Mexican bias is much worse by the border where there are many Mexicans. The bigger the threat (in numbers) the worse the xenophobia.

  30. Too bad there were not legal means for the Judge to order the complaining parents to pay all court costs including the Principal’s defense team. Parents who try to ruin peoples’ reputation by ridiculously claiming they were trying to harm children when they were actually doing the exact opposite, need to start paying the consequences for their paranoid thinking.

  31. Eh. I actually disagree with Lenore on this one, although I tho I that’s the first time that’s happened to me. 🙂 Whether this guy was just dumb as rocks for not realizing that birthday “whaps” are a stupid idea in today’s culture, or whether he was a total jerk who didn’t care what anyone thought, he shouldn’t have been doing this to begin with. Yes, birthday spankings are a harmless, funny tradition. But no matter how gentle and non-abusive they are, that kind of joking is still inappropriate between a principal and students. And even if it’s optional and supposed to be fun, kids often feel pressure to participate in that sort of thing even if they don’t feel comfortable with it. It reminds me of a yourh group I worked with that had a tradition of ragging the seniors at a senior dinner. It was supposed to be funny to have each senior stand up and listen to everyone telling embarrassing stories about them. Not abusive, obviously, but still not cool, and not conducive to a comfortable, kind or supportive learning environment. Birthday whaps have the same problem — even if they’re not abusive, they might be uncomfortable for a lot of kids who will probably feel pressured to do it (because their friends think it’s fun to see them whapped). And the whole thing is just not helpful for creating a positive school environment, IMO.

  32. Usually by the time I get to read your posts, everything to be said has already been said. But this makes me think of some of the bizarre articles I’ve been reading lately.

    Birthday whaps (not spankings) are abuse. (Evidenced here.)

    Feeding hot sauce to a kid is abuse. (Granted, she did it vindictively, but still.) http://articles.nydailynews.com/2012-04-17/news/31357148_1_hot-sauce-child-abuse-day-care

    And French fries are now “dangerous weapons”. (To think anyone can come in off the street and arm themselves for 99 cents.) http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/sideshow/dad-charged-assault-tossing-mcdonald-fries-daughter-210836547.html

    Um. So, what isn’t child abuse anymore, exactly?

  33. Lisa, perhaps it isn’t the Principal who is “just dumb as rocks for not realizing that birthday ‘whaps’ are a stupid idea in today’s culture” but maybe it’s the parents of today who are as dumb as rocks who believe it is. I think that was the whole point of Lenore’s article and I, for one, tend to agree with her on this one.

  34. Anyone else think that people who are found to have started frivilous lawsuits (or criminal trials) should be sent the bill for the defense? I know the possible pitfall to that, but really some people seem to be so angry they just want to ruin everthing for everyone.

  35. I don’t think anyone’s as dumb as rocks, but as I said before, I’d rather sing to kids on their birthdays than do the whap/slap/bump ritual. Then again, I’m Canadian, and that was never part of my culture/upbringing, but for some people, it may be completely normal. So, I’m not going to pass judgement on someone else’s longstanding ritual just because it seems strange to me.

  36. Cause children to be submissive to adults? The horrors! A big problem with parents today is that they seem to fail to accept that adults should be somewhat dominant over children and children somewhat submissive to adults. And they have the snot-nosed brats to show for it.

  37. On those who are saying that maybe it was just an excuse to get rid of a loser, there are a couple of problems with that.

    First, you don’t fire someone for a non-firing offense, unless it’s really a kind of “you’re on probation, this is your final warning” kind of situation. And this should not be deemed a firing offense, in a rational world.

    Second, it’s not that hard to get rid of school administrators. In fact a school principal will often be the sacrificial lamb, since unionized teachers are much harder to get rid of. (Note: this is not a “blame the teachers” thing, it’s just a relative comparison of who has more job protection and therefore who is more likely to get the axe first when problems arise in a school.) If he was continually so bad that they were just looking for an excuse to fire him, they didn’t really need an excuse.

    So I don’t think it’s reasonable to conclude that this could have been an acceptable decision because it was the only way to get rid of someone who had to go. It’s mostly likely not the only way, and it’s not acceptable to fire rather than reprimand over something like this anyway.

  38. As I read the article, the superintendent found out about the ritual in Feb 2011 and asked the principal to stop. At that point, there had been absolutely no complaints from parents about the practice (says so specifically in the article). The principal clearly didn’t do as his boss asked and was forced to resign in June 2011 (not a surprising result when you don’t listen to orders by your boss). There is no indication that any parents complained in the four months between Feb and June.

    So where did these parents suddenly complaining and alleging psychological abuse come from? They didn’t complain when the practice was ongoing. Their children were not so psychologically abused that they spoke up immediately after they got their birthday whaps. They simply jumped on the victim bandwagon once he was fired, possibly in hopes of some payoff.

  39. maybe its about time teachers can counter sue parents for vexatious complaints. Being able to ruin a teachers reputation and career from some petty complaint is outrageous. Its about time teachers were given more power to defend themselves.

  40. I am a teacher in Australia and part of my daily fitness was to have the students aged 6-7 run to a goal post and back, where they gave me a high 5 then get a drink and meet me in the classroom. I would stand with my hands in the air and the students would give me a high 5 if they wanted to. (I never forced a child) Most of the time I would be the one with the red hands due to 25 students slapping me. One day the Principal saw this and told me I needed to stop giving high fives for 2 reasons. 1. I was making physical contact with the students, which was zero tolerence, even handshakes with students at our school, and 2, giving high 5’s could be interpurated as smaking and parents could make a complaint. I did stop this practice and the funny part was a child complained to thier parents that I no longer gave high 5’s and the parents asked me if I coud start again with their child as he thought it was his reward for compteting the run. I decided to continue the practice again when the Principal was not around (which was most of the time at my school)

  41. The failure of community over the past 70 years (since WWII) seems to have left children vulnerable from 2 opposite forces. Initially their exposure to paedophiles as parents failed to build community around them. Boarding school, churches, even scouts provided ‘give over resonsibility’ environments in which many children found themselves preyed upon. The backlash has been a hyper vigilant generation which is so paranoid about others that we fail to build community and straightforward communication. Sometimes we need to say, “this seems harmless but gives me an uneasy feeling. Perhaps we could make another birthday ritual?” We go legal because we fail as human beings.

  42. unrelated by thought you might like this article that was in my cities free newspaper – I think they did a pretty good job and giving parents a little push to be free range. Surprised you werent mentioned lenore as you often are in magazines here.


    article is page 13

    though I am surprise about the amount of people being taken to court for leaving kids in cars, or a 9 year old kid walking around a shopping centre who got lost approached security and this led to the dad being taken to court??? i thought if you were lost this is what you did approach security who help reunite you with your parents.

  43. I’m of two minds about this. I don’t believe hitting (even in fun) should be encouraged at school. Also, the power difference between a principal and students is huge. The principal already controls a huge part of the kids daily lives, why does he get to “whack” them, too? It just doesn’t sit well with me.
    However, my two kids get birthday punches from their sensei at karate. Not all the kids at their dojo get them. The kids aged eight and under don’t get b’day punches at all because it riles them up and they all start trying to hit the birthday kid. The 9-12 age group get very light contact punches, and the very new/low ranking students don’t get punches unless they ask for it. For the teens/higher ranks all the instructors (usually 2-4) will take turns punching and kicking the kid. They don’t hurt anyone, no bruises or blood. It’s done in full view of the parents. I think it is not disturbing to me because the whole purpose of martial arts is self defense, and learning to take a punch or kick is part of that.

  44. Off topic – Has this page on WordPress changed for anyone else in the last few days? Now I always have a bar across the bottom with the blog title, and something about “customized digg”, the front page goes on and on and on (no page 2) and jumps around, and when I press the back button (from comment page to main page) it goes right to the top, not back to where I was.

    Can’t figure it out and I’m frustrated.

  45. kurokami77, that second article you linked is about a man throwing an entire order of hot french fries into a little girl’s face — so yes, I think that qualifies as abuse.

  46. I have to disagree: I don’t think the principal should be fired, and definitely not for the reasons the parents gave. But this kind of thing is exactly what helps reinforce the “I am adults’ property” apathetic mindset among kids. And as others pointed out, children may be pressured by their friends by enduring this humiliation.

  47. kurokami77, Wow. You think that feeding a 13 month old baby jabanero hot sauce does NOT qualify as abuse? Do you actually have any children?

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