In Memphis this week, two black parents, 33-year-old Mary Higginbottom and 32-year-old Johnny Allen, were charged with aggravated child abuse http://wreg.com/2012/05/17/parents-jailed-for-beating-child-over-report-card/ after they beat their son over a bad grade on a report card.
According to a police report, the 10-year-old boy received a “non-satisfactory” grade for conduct. He told police that he changed the grade from “N” to “S” for “satisfactory,” and gave it to his mother to sign. When his mother noticed that the grade had been changed, she and her husband took turns whipping him.
The next day, the boy returned to school with “open flesh wounds on his arms, head and face.”
LaVerne Simms, a neighbor, told a local reporter that the boy probably got a “non-satisfactory” conduct grade because he was being bullied at school. The boy had confided in her about being teased by other students.
“He said, ‘Miss LaVerne, they don’t like me at school.’ He said, ‘They pick on me all the time.’ And I said, ‘Well…turn the other cheek, walk the other way, and say, the Good Lord be with you.’”
Another neighbor, Maxine Fowler, said that Higgonbottom and Allen are good parents who don’t deserve to be in jail.
Whether or not they “deserve” to be in jail, this case is indicative of two things:
One, what happens when changing attitudes and policy conflict with what used to be commonplace practices; i.e., spanking a child for anything a parent or adult might consider misbehavior, including a “bad” report card; and
Two, what happens when the punishment leads to unintended consequences that not only far exceed the inciting infraction, but have the potential to cause serious, long-term harm to an individual or, in this case, an entire family, rippling out to touch their community.
Higginbottom and Allen acted, as many parents do, out of frustration, anger and fear that their child would not progress through the education system in a positive manner. Perhaps they had a pre-defined and mutually understood rule that anything less than a certain grade on a report card would automatically result in a whipping. Maybe that’s what led their son, out of desperation, to try to change the grade on the report card.
Years ago, even a child attending school the next day with visible open wounds might not have led to the parents being jailed. But laws regarding child abuse have evolved to the point where legal intervention is increasingly common, and where one family’s definition of “discipline” can easily run afoul of the legal definition of child abuse.
I doubt that Higginbottom and Allen gave this a thought. They possibly figured that “a really good beating” would solve the issues of misbehavior in school, and the failed attempt to falsify the report card to hide the misbehavior.
Today, they sit in jail, with their son potentially in or headed to the foster care system—thereby increasing his risk of becoming fodder for our nation’s voracious cradle-to-prison pipeline.
Due to these Draconian measures, this small family is not being given a chance to learn from this situation, to grow, or to do better next time. In a 10-year-old boy’s mind, he might be reasoning that bullying leads to beating leads to institutionalization. The chances of him emerging unscathed from this scenario are slim to none.
The parents are in jail, deprived of the opportunity for positive intervention to introduce them to safer and healthier options for disciplining their child, and for creating a family culture where the boy felt safe sharing the fact that he was being bullied.
So many “teachable moments” have been lost in this scenario, including the very important opportunity for teachers to consider the potential consequences of their communications with parents. The teachers, who are simply doing what is required of them by assigning grades and behavior indicators for parents via report cards, might not learn to understand the potentially painful and dangerous consequence that await some children when that information is received and acted upon by harshly punitive parents.
And, as we know, the lessons a child learns from being beaten are more likely to lead to an increase in problematic behaviors down the road. What parents who spank and beat their children are doing is setting the child’s hard-drive to subconsciously expect and accept that violence is an acceptable response to frustration, fear, displeasure and anger.
It is easy to see how parents experiencing these feelings, promise a teacher that they will work with their child to improve the behavior and/or grades in question. Then, when parents receive a communication from the teacher—whether through a report card, a mid-term progress report, disciplinary notice, telephone call or request for a parent-teacher meeting—telling them that the problem has not been solved, this might make it more likely that the child will experience corporal punishment.
In addition to helping parents move beyond beating their children to include more effective disciplinary tools in their repertoire, teachers must receive training to make them culturally aware and sensitive to how their communications might lead to unintended consequences for their students and families.
No willful crimes were committed in this case, not by the boy, or by his parents. Yes, the mother and father clearly went overboard and yes, intervention was warranted for the level of physical abuse suffered by their son.
But shoving another family—especially an African-American family—into the prison-industrial complex and its feeder foster care system, not only escalates the level of trauma experienced by the poor boy and his misguided parents, but makes it all but impossible for the underlying issues of bullying, limited parenting skills, etc., to be addressed and remedied.
This case is a sad and painful reminder at every level of how bad things can become when the “remedy” is worse than the condition it is supposed to cure.