Texas law allows parents to paddle kids, as long as the punishment is not abusive

In Olney schools, student athletes can get paddled for disrespecting their teachers or coaches.

At Ennis High school, misbehaving students may receive swats -- but only twice every nine weeks.

And in Wink, middle and high school students who cuss at other students, set fires or steal could get a double dose of punishment: Three days of in-school suspension and three swats.

Corporal punishment is alive and well in Texas schools and, in most cases, the discipline is clearly defined in student handbooks.

But what about at home?

While there is an ongoing national debate about corporal punishment in public schools -- including an anti-paddling bill in the Texas House -- the discipline also continues to be a hot topic in the private sector, where parents and guardians make personal decisions on how to discipline their children.

Many parents regularly spank their children, while others would never consider it. And plenty of parents have questions about the legality of it.

Can I get arrested if I spank my child in public? (No.) Is using a belt considered child abuse? (It depends.) Is it OK for a licensed day-care worker to spank my kid? (Never.)

In Texas, the law gives parents, stepparents, grandparents and legal guardians leeway in disciplining their children, but authorities stress that corporal punishment must be "reasonable" and not cross the line into abuse.

"Every case is different, but some things that could constitute abuse would be using something other than your hand, leaving marks or bruises, or hitting in the face," said Marissa Gonzales, a spokeswoman for Child Protective Services.

Old habits die hard

Dawn, 32, a mother of three in Garland who is not being fully identified because of the sensitive nature of the issue, is among those who struggle with spanking, partly because she grew up in an "authoritarian" household.

"It was, 'Do as I say or I'm going to spank you, and you better do it and do it fast and don't give me any lip,'" Dawn said. "It was all reactive. If my mother had a shoe in her hand, she hit me with that. She chased me around with a broom one time."

When Dawn's first child was born, she started spanking her, too.

"When she was 13 months old I saw something in her -- there was anger in her," Dawn said. "I realized what I was doing was not right for her."

Dawn said she has tried timeouts, rewarding good behavior and talking it out with her children. But old habits die hard and, when her oldest daughter does something unacceptable -- usually disrespect -- she'll sometimes give her a lick with a wooden spoon.

"I just try and make sure that I don't do it when I'm angry," she said. "I don't think it's the best way -- and it definitely should not be the only way -- to discipline."

Not for foster children

For day-care workers and foster parents, paddling isn't an option.

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees child-care centers and foster homes, prohibits corporal punishment, and those who are caught using it face losing their permit or licenses.

"Children who are in foster care have all been victimized in some way," Gonzales said. "The goal is for them to feel safe. Some have suffered physical abuse and many have witnessed violence in their homes and families, so using corporal punishment would be inappropriate, considering their backgrounds."

It's a directive that Johnson County resident Patti Rooks takes seriously.

Rooks, who along with her husband has fostered or adopted two dozen children since 2002, said they have to be creative when disciplining their children, which now include eight adopted children and four foster children.

"We do use different forms of discipline for foster and adoptive children as per foster care rules," Rooks said. "We use timeout, loss of privileges and extra chores with all of them. Our adopted children, we will have them write sentences or do sit-ups or push-ups."

And while Texas schools cannot be prevented from using corporal punishment, officials said, foster parents are instructed to tell school officials to refrain from using this form of discipline -- or to notify CPS officials so they can attempt to intervene.

"We have had to intervene with a few school districts to remind them not to use physical punishment on foster children," Gonzales said.

"It doesn't happen frequently, and most of those cases were in areas of the state other than North Texas."