Parents can approve paddling by educators in the Oklahoma school district

By Jeff Truesdell
October 03, 2018 02:47 PM
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Credit: Pittsburg County Sheriff's Department

In an Oklahoma school district that allows administrators to paddle students if given parental approval, one principal is accused of going too far in his discipline of two elementary students.

Gary L. Gunckel, 50, a principal in the Indianola Public Schools, has pleaded not guilty to two charges of felony child abuse filed against him on Friday, District 18 District Attorney Chuck Sullivan tells PEOPLE.

“I am completely innocent of all charges and I’m looking forward to proving that in court,” Gunckel tells PEOPLE. He declined further comment.

The allegations stem from an incident on Sept. 6, in which Gunckel allegedly used “unreasonable force” in swatting the two boys, ages 10 and 11, with a wooden paddle, according to a probable cause affidavit, reports The Duncan Banner.

The parents of both boys had been contacted by the school and gave prior permission for the paddling as punishment for the boys’ fighting, according to the affidavit. But when one of the boys later complained to his parent that his bottom hurt, his mother saw bruising — and after speaking with the mother of the second boy who also observed bruising on her own son’s buttocks, the first mom contacted police on Sept. 8, the affidavit states.

Before alerting police, the first boy’s mother said she’d raised her concerns with Indianola Public Schools Superintendent Adam Newman and had been told by Newman that he’d spoken to Gunckel, who said he’d followed the district’s policy on corporal punishment.

The mother said she’d received a phone call that evening from Newman and Gunckel prior to calling police. The principal apologized “for busting the boys,” according to the affidavit, which adds, “Gary told her he spanked the boys the same way he spanked high school students.”

PEOPLE’s calls to Newman and to Gunckel’s attorney, Gary Buckles, were not immediately returned.

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“A lot of the school districts around here have corporal punishment the parents can all opt into,” says Sullivan, the district attorney. “When you register your child for school, you can opt into whether you allow your child to receive corporal punishment. Schools have different policies as to how it’s done.”

“That school, even if you’ve opted in, you’ve got to get prior approval,” says Sullivan. “The families were given a choice, either a days’ worth of suspension or a paddling, I believe.”

“The boys were disciplined according to the school policy, which allows for corporal punishment,” he says. “The parents of the boys noticed injuries that were rather excessive for what one would expect from a swat paddling, and they became concerned and so they had law enforcement investigate it.”

“We reviewed it, and felt that this was an appropriate charge for the evidence we had,” he says.

“As far as human beings go, I think this principal’s a pretty nice man,” Sullivan adds, which is “what makes this case so interesting and incredibly divisive.”

The charges alleging abuse under school discipline policies are the first to cross his desk since Sullivan began working in the district attorney’s office in 2011, he says.

“He’s a beloved educator, which I understand,” says Sullivan, a parent of children enrolled in the public schools, although not at the school where the alleged incident occurred.

“I would hope that it could be resolved without trial,” he says, “but that’s something way too early to speculate.”