Lloyd Ray Fisher is either a child abuser or an exemplary parent.
Police say Fisher committed felony assault on March 13. He whipped his son with a belt after the 13-year-old was kicked out of school for stealing from teachers, hitting other children and cutting a girl’s hair.
But supporters of corporal punishment say that the few short-lived welts on the boy’s butt might be just what he needed.
His father, however, now faces jail time if found guilty. He plans to take the case to trial to argue that a one-time belt-spanking for inexcusable behavior is well within a parent’s authority.
“I was just trying to be a parent,” Fisher said. “He’s 13 now. I’m trying to raise him to be a man. I couldn’t just sit back and watch him going down the wrong road.”
Both sides agree on the basic facts: The boy, whose name is being withheld by The Daily Gazette, had been in trouble for months. He is big for his age, and has bullied girls, hit boys and repeatedly taken cash and cellphones from teachers’ purses, acts which landed him in Family Court for theft. He stole from other children at his after-school day care so often that he was expelled last month.
Then, on March 13, he attacked a boy with a ruler.
The school suspended him at once. They called his mother, who has custody. She called his father. Fisher picked up the boy at school, took him home, and in his words, “whupped his butt.”
“I’d tried the Dr. Phil method. You sit him down, you talk, you go out for ice cream, you go on long walks,” Fisher said. “But he was in continuous trouble. It’s like an everyday, regular thing: The judge said stay out of trouble for a month, and six hours later he stole again. He was hitting girls — I sat him down and said, ‘Dude, that’s the most disrespectful thing you can do.’ The last thing you want is your kid beating up girls. I have little girls and I can imagine — that’s as low as you can go. And he kept doing it.”
So when the boy was kicked out of school, Fisher decided to get physical.
“I just flashed back to old school — you need some heat under your butt,” Fisher said. “I gave him a couple of whacks. It lasted less than a minute.”
But the boy later described the beating as involving up to 18 strikes. He was left with “a couple welts,” according to District Attorney Robert Carney.
A welt is a lump or ridge that rises on the skin after a blow. The injury is similar to a bruise, but not caused by bleeding under the skin, and disappears relatively quickly.
By all accounts, the boy was able to sit comfortably, walk and play after the incident. But four hours later, after the boy went home and told his mother, Fisher was arrested. He turned himself in and spent five days in jail before making bail.
WAS IT A CRIME?
There’s no question that Fisher hit the boy with a belt. But was it a crime?
“That was standard operating procedure for most parents when I grew up,” said City Councilman Joseph Allen, who has never met Fisher but is vehemently opposed to the idea of criminalizing physical discipline. Allen thinks more children need a good spanking.
“If you got discipline once, sometimes that was a lifelong lesson,” Allen said. “All children are different. Some of them need the rod. How are parents going to discipline? Are you going to talk ’em to death?”
The state Office of Children and Family Services says anything beyond talking is not just useless, but counter-productive.
“The child learns to hit other people,” said spokesman Ed Borges. “In the workplace, when someone misperforms, are you going to slap ’em around? No, you’ve learned to de-escalate the situation.”
Spokeswoman Sue Steele added, “Violence breeds violence.”
Carney said parents can legally still spank children with their open hand — just not a belt.
“It’s sometimes a fine line between corporal punishment and a crime. This is a case that goes beyond a parent disciplining a child,” he said. “Some distinguishing features were he was whipping him with his belt as many as 18 times, and there were some welts.”
He said the pain inflicted by the belt was beyond reason. By law, prosecution must prove that the boy was in substantial pain to get a conviction for misdemeanor assault.
For felony assault, Fisher must have either seriously injured the boy — which Carney agrees did not happen — or used the belt like a deadly weapon. Carney said whipping the boy did not rise to that level, so he plans to push for a misdemeanor rather than the felony in the initial charge. But he wants a sentence of eight months in jail in exchange for reducing the charge. For now, Fisher is still charged with a felony.
“This rose to the level of particularly sadistic pain and injury,” Carney said, adding that he wouldn’t take parents to court for a normal spanking.
Many parents still do just that. Sociologists have been tracking the evolution of public opinion on corporal punishment in the country for the past 20 years, and so far only a handful of parents strongly oppose spanking.
In 2006, 46 percent of respondents supported spanking. Only 8 percent strongly opposed it.
But the sea change has begun. In 1986, the first year that the National Opinion Research Center began tracking the issue, only 3 percent of respondents strongly opposed spankings. At that time, 56 percent supported corporal punishment. Now that same number of parents are on the fence, neither strongly opposed nor strongly in favor.
“Americans are a bit conflicted about it. ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child’ has had a long history,” said Skidmore College sociology professor Catherine White Berheide. “But a hundred years ago, the progressive era began to protect children with child labor laws and all sort of laws that codified that children are precious to us.”
Most of those laws protect young children, under the age of 12. Public opinion is more likely to support Fisher because he was hitting a teenager, she said.
“This concern we have with precious children goes to younger children. We tend not to have these issues with older kids because they can hit back,” Berheide said. “There is a group of teenagers that parents and schools have trouble controlling. So I can imagine this parent feeling, if other avenues have been tried, what else can he do?”
She added that culturally, poorer parents and non-white parents tend to support corporal punishment much more than white, middle-class parents. In some cultures, “whupping a child is OK,” she said. “There are cultural differences.”
But in the white middle class, she said, experts argue that corporal punishment can ruin a child.
“The idea is that there should be no spankings, that we should have other forms of discipline,” Berheide said. “When you tell a child, ‘Don’t hit your brother,’ and then you hit them, they learn violence is the way to express your point of view. Even if it’s a controlled spanking, it sends the wrong message.”
But Allen said it can send the precisely correct message.
“Usually, if you got hit with a belt, it’s because you did something extremely wrong,” Allen said. “Spanking your child with a belt isn’t a felony. I mean, hitting them with a brick, or a 2-by-4 — that’s a felony, in my opinion.”
He said Fisher’s arrest may also encourage children to defy their parents.
“These kids know, ‘Hey, you hit me, I’m gonna take you to court, I’m gonna charge you with assault,’ ” Allen said. “I’m really concerned about this. This should be overturned. We need more discipline, not less.”
Berheide also said Fisher’s reason for hitting his son should be a major factor in his punishment.
“We are often complaining, as a society, about parents who don’t care,” Berheide said. “Kind of ironically, here’s a parent who did something. And as the data tells you, there are people who will say this man did the absolute right thing.”