2008-06-11 / Front Page

Former Willacy D.A. accused of forcing spanking as an alternative punishment

Parents of "spanked" truant student file lawsuit
ROBERT WILCOX Editor/Reporter

Parents of "spanked" truant student file lawsuit

A LOS FRESNOS ISD STUDENT, who is now 15, was spanked by her stepfather in April with a paddle in the Cameron County courtroom of former Willacy D.A. Gustavo "Gus" Garza. He was elected as a justice of the peace 1-1/2 years ago in Los Fresnos, and is now being sued by the parents of the girl.

Photo courtesy of KVEO/Channel 23 in Brownsville 

The parents of a 15-year-old female Los Fresnos student filed a lawsuit seeking unspecified damages and the removal of Los Fresnos Justice of the Peace Gustavo "Gus" Garza from his elected office for a spanking punishment carried out in his courtroom.

In early April, Judge Garza gave the girl's stepfather the option to spank her in open court in front of other families and students, or have his stepdaughter convicted and pay a $500 fine. The stepfather, at the time, chose to spank his stepdaughter.

The lawsuit was filed by Brownsville attorney Mark Sossi on behalf of Mary Vasquez, the girl's mother, and Daniel Zurita, the girl's stepfather.

The lawsuit alleges in part that; Judge Garza told Zurita he did not hit his stepdaughter hard enough, and that it is unconscionable that a Texas judge would order a parent, much less a stepparent, to strike a child with such a thing in a Texas courtroom.

The paddle was likely fashioned from a 2"x6" piece of lumber, and has eight holes drilled in it, according to a photo provided by KVEO/Channel 23.

Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct (TSCJC) Executive Director Seana Willing said in an e-mail that her agency has had relatively few complaints filed about the issue.

Gustavo "Gus" Garza
File photo from 2007 arrest in Raymondville

"Depending on the facts and circumstances and severity of each case, the level of sanction has ranged from private sanctions to public sanctions, to removal (from office)," Willing wrote. "In the end, the concern should be the fact that the judges are acting without legal authority, and may be violating the law, and may be exposing the county and themselves to liability."

Garza was Willacy County district attorney from 1992 to 1996, and said on Monday night that he stands by his corporal punishment disciplinary option, because it yields results.

"It works," said Gus Garza, referring to spanking. "If you check with juvenile probation they'll tell you this."

"I've always given parents the option to spank their children, and they choose to do it - or they choose not to," he added. "I never force them to choose."

In February of 1995, then District Attorney Garza said the idea of spanking came from parents of seven reported juvenile gang members, who allegedly beat up an 11-year-old boy putting a 4-inch cut on the boys forehead with a rock.

A March 1, 1995 Chronicle/News article quoted Gus Garza as follows, "These kids have never had any corporal punishment. I told them that in this state someone is executed almost everyday by lethal injection, and it is often because they had no discipline at home."

Gus Garza agreed to provide the paddle at the time, after one parent said, "Let's all do it right here and now."

The seven kids, aged 11-14, were told to lean over a courtroom rail, while each parent gave their kid five hard swats with the paddle. Gus Garza said several kids wept and two said they had never been spanked before.

Gus Garza said he hoped that the parents will continue corrective discipline at home, and said, "If so, then maybe they won't be mailing cigarettes to their kid in prison."

Raul Garza, who is now the Willacy County Juvenile Probation Department's director, handled the 1995 case.

"In general, when there is strong discipline in the home it cuts down on recidivism, but that does not necessarily mean corporal punishment - It could be strong rules and curfews," Raul Garza said. "I remember the case, but I can't think of anything out there (scientific studies) that would support the use (of corporal punishment)."

"In my opinion, if corporal punishment is to be applied, it should be a private parental option, versus a court-ordered option," Raul Garza added.

Corporal punishment is currently being used by a principal at West Oso Elementary School in Corpus Christi.

"I have seen some positive results," Principal Terry Avery said. "But it's not always a supported form of punishment by some parents."

Avery said that he knows the difference between spanking and going beyond where corporal punishment could be considered cruel.

"Corporal punishment does have its' benefits," he added. "I've seen that in households where parents staunchly oppose spanking - Their kids tend to run the house."

"For the most part it can be a way to keep kids in school," he added.

TSCJC's Willing provided the Chronicle/News with two cases of discipline of spanking judge investigations her agency conducted and acted upon.

Case 1 is different from Judge Garza's Los Fresnos situation. Former Port Arthur Justice of the Peace Thurman Bill Bartie personally participated in meting out corporal punishment in his courtroom, used profane language in his courtroom, failed to follow the law, and exhibited incompetence in the law.

Judge Bartie allegedly hit juveniles on the head with his gavel, punched one in the chest, and hit another juvenile on the head with his knuckles. He also called a reporter a "racist" in his courtroom, who said at the time, that he was just observing what was happening.

In the Bartie case, the commission removed Judge Bartie from office, and forever barred him from holding a judicial office in Texas.

Case 2 is somewhat similar to Judge Garza's Los Fresnos situation. Montgomery County Justice of the Peace Robert Kleimann ordered a foster parent to spank his foster child, after the judge heard about the boy's unruly behavior at home, and use of profanity in school.

The foster parent told Judge Kleimann he was prohibited from spanking his foster kids, but was told by the judge it was permitted in his courtroom.

In the Kleimann case, the commission found that Judge Kleimann acted outside the law, and ordered a public reprimand of the judge.

In Garza's case he did give the stepparent the option of corporal punishment or a conviction/fine, unlike what Judge Kleimann allegedly did; so it is unknown how the TSCJC would rule in the Los Fresnos case, provided the commission receives a complaint.

Last Friday, Judge Garza was initially represented by the Cameron County Attorney's office, at a temporary restraining order hearing, that the parent's attorney objected to. Cameron County commissioners were to vote on continued legal assistance by county attorneys at last night's commissioners court meeting.

Since Judge Garza was acting in official capacity, he will likely get representation from the state's insurance lawyers for the parents civil damages lawsuit.

It has come to the attention of the Chronicle/News that one other parent is in the process of filing a lawsuit against Judge Garza.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Please be sure to take the Chronicle/News website poll;  Do you support parental spanking of children as an alternative court punishment?

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