By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
Some parents feel so favorably toward corporal punishment that the photos of Erik Vidor's bruises served as a kind of endorsement for the Classical School. Jackson says that after Erik's spanking made the news, the school logged more than a hundred phone calls from parents requesting enrollment information. So far, he says, the school has added ten new students because of the publicity.
Kim Vidor is a registered nurse at M.D. Anderson, and knows better than most mothers how to report evidence of child abuse. She checked with the state agency that licenses child care facilities to see whether she could lodge a complaint against the school. She found that the Department of Protective and Regulatory Services didn't oversee the school, though it once had. In 1995, a parent had complained to the agency that a teacher had squeezed a child's face. Debra Jackson responded that the agency didn't have jurisdiction over the school; since Classical only handled children during school hours, she argued, it didn't need a child care license. (The department is now trying to verify the school's hours.)
The district attorney's office seemed reluctant to prosecute Erik's case, and Kim Vidor began searching for help. She felt her son had been victimized, and that the perpetrator was getting off scot-free. A victims' rights advocate referred her to Jimmy Dunne, the head of People Opposed to Paddling Students. Dunne is a graying, soft-spoken former teacher who used to paddle students himself, but found that it didn't work. Spanking, he decided, planted the seeds of violence, teaching children that might makes right and that strong people have a right to abuse weaker ones. Eventually, he founded POPS, and from a tiny office on the west side distributed newsletters, fact sheets, posters and stickers -- all aimed at stopping corporal punishment.
In Erik Vidor, Dunne had found, literally, a poster child for his cause. On February 12, POPS called a press conference and distributed photos of Erik's bruises to the media. Texas, Dunne said, needed to ban corporal punishment to prevent such abuses.
Later that day, Jackson saw the photos for the first time. "My God!" he told the Chronicle. "If I did that, put me in jail! No way!"
At his own press conference, Jackson admitted that he'd paddled Erik, but denied that he'd inflicted those hellacious bruises -- if, in fact, the bruises existed. You can't believe photographs, he said. Erik, he claimed, had a history of lying. And besides, Jackson had reported the boy's parents to Children's Protective Services. He implied that they might have bruised the child themselves, or that they might be seeking revenge.
Obviously, some of those statements contained logical problems. If Jackson struck Erik repeatedly with a paddle, he couldn't be certain that he hadn't bruised the boy. Jackson hadn't reported the Vidors to CPS until after the Vidors had already reported him. The parents' rage couldn't reasonably be construed as payback.
Nor did the allegations hinge on Erik's own truthfulness. Jackson himself confirmed that Erik had been spanked that day, and accounts from two of the school's teachers generally supported the boy in the details of the incident.
Such niggling questions, though, didn't interfere with television's cutting to the quick of the controversy: Is it okay to paddle? Does sparing the rod spoil the child?
When Channel 51 put the question to its viewers, the results were not what Jimmy Dunne might have hoped. Sixty-seven percent of callers supported spanking. Later, Dunne would lament the attitude of most Texans: "It's a beat-'em-up kind of state."
On March 17, Erik's case went before a grand jury, and Boom Boom was no-billed. His lawyer, Mike DeGeurin, declared that it was time for everyone to move on, that continuing to examine the incident was "not fair to the boy."
Denise Oncken, the assistant D.A. who tried the case, seemed anxious to move on as well. "The grand jury didn't find sufficient probable cause," she said, to indict Jackson for injuring a child. "That's all I can tell you. It's a secret proceeding." She cautioned against jumping to conclusions after looking at photographs: "When people see spanking cases, they think, 'Oh my God, injuries!' But it's not that simple. You've got to see whether the child has done something to deserve it, what the child's behavior is otherwise, whether the child has to be restrained, whether the child is large or difficult to control -- those kinds of things."
Jimmy Dunne interpreted the case as one more instance in which Texas law had failed to protect children. In his files, he keeps a copy of the broad statute that regulates school punishment. According to Texas Penal Code Statute 9.62, an educator who "reasonably believes the force is necessary to further the special purpose or to maintain discipline in a group" is justified in using "force, but not deadly force."
"So," concluded Dunne, "it's okay if they put the kid in a coma."
The Vidors were outraged, and turned to civil court. On April 16, they sued the Classical School, Boom Boom and teachers Brown and Kossie. They accused the school and the three men of being responsible for assault and battery, negligence and gross negligence, and they accused Boom Boom of slander, charging that he maliciously misled CPS by saying that Erik was abused at home.
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