Around 6 p.m. each day, the neighborhood kids begin to gather at Russell Fish's tiny North Dallas apartment, which is decorated with educational posters and inspirational sayings such as: "We don't look for people who never fail. We look for people who never give up."
Primarily black and Latino elementary school children from single-parent homes, the kids--anywhere from 5 to 10 at a time, depending on the day--come here to be tutored in math, reading, and computer skills by Fish, a 44-year-old technical writer who prepares lessons for them each day.
When the children are done with their studies, Fish takes them to a nearby school and teaches them soccer. He has helped several of them join the Cub Scouts and get onto organized soccer and baseball teams in Richardson. In some instances, Fish has even paid their registration and uniform fees.
Fish has been an unpaid mentor and coach to these children seven days a week for the last year and a half. "We all have weaknesses, and mine is for lost causes," says Fish, an erstwhile computer executive who used to teach inner-city children in Palo Alto, California.
Fish demands a lot of these kids, and he has seen both their grades and behavior change for the better as a result. But now his disciplining techniques, particularly his belief in firmly swatting a child's behind if he or she seriously misbehaves, has landed him in trouble with the law.
In October, Dallas police cited Fish for misdemeanor assault after he spanked an 11-year-old boy three times on his buttocks because he pushed a seven-year-old boy face-down onto the street as they raced to the park.
One of five children, the 11-year-old boy and his sister had recently come to live with their father because their mother couldn't control them, Fish says. The boy's father works as a maintenance man at Fish's apartment complex, which is at the intersection of Arapaho and Hillcrest Roads.
In October, the boy's father had asked Fish to tutor his son, who was failing and was in danger of repeating a grade, according to Fish. Fish claims he agreed to help the man's son with the proviso that if the boy misbehaved, he would discipline him and then send him home.
"I didn't tell the father that I might spank the boy, because frankly I don't do it that much," says Fish.
About two weeks after Fish began working with the boy, on October 17, he and three other students were headed to an elementary school playground to practice soccer.
"The other boys were younger and faster than he was," Fish says. "When the third boy passed him as they were crossing the street, he grabbed him by the shirt and threw him to the ground. This was physically dangerous, brutal, and outrageous," says Fish. "It wasn't provoked. It was absolutely unacceptable behavior, and it required an immediate response."
Fish's immediate response was to hit the boy once with an open hand on his rear end. The boy said, "'I didn't do it, I didn't do it,'" according to Fish. The mentor swatted him two more times on his behind, then sent him home with the admonishment to tell his father what he had done.
About 10 minutes later, the boy returned with his father, who accused Fish of beating his son. Fish denied the accusation and asked the father to look at the other boy, who had abrasions on his leg, arm, and hand. The father refused, then left to call the police.
According to the police report, the boy claimed Fish hit him "8 to 10 times." The father told police he previously had observed Fish "whipping other boys and he had specifically told him that if his son needed discipline that he, the father, would correct him." The police charged Fish with misdemeanor assault, which is punishable with up to a $500 fine. A trial is set for April 29.
Fish disputes the father and son's version of events, particularly the allegation that the father had told Fish not to discipline his son. It is not clear, legally, whether Fish needed the father's permission to inflict corporal punishment on the boy.
According to the Texas Penal Code, the use of force, but not deadly force, against a child younger than 18 years is justified if the person "reasonably believes the force is necessary to discipline the child or safeguard or promote his welfare."
Adults permitted under law to inflict corporal punishment include parents, teachers, guardians, and any adult operating in loco parentis. The penal code defines in loco parentis as anyone who has "express or implied consent of the parent or parents."
Fish says that if a parent told him not to spank his or her child, "I would abide. But that wasn't the situation here. Frankly, spanking is pretty minor stuff. We're talking about an open hand on a kid's bottom. This is not a federal case, but kids want to make it a federal case because they want to get away with their actions scot-free."
Ironically, Fish's occasional use of spanking for discipline is being used against him in a nasty custody battle between himself and the mother of his seven-year-old son. In the beginning of February, the boy's guardian ad litem got a restraining order against Fish denying him access to his son. In an affidavit presented to the court, the guardian ad litem included a letter the boy had written complaining that Fish hits him. The guardian ad litem also alleged that Fish hits the boys he tutors in the head, which Fish vehemently denies.
Fish says he has spanked his son no more than five times in his life. The last time was in August when his son and another boy berated a young girl Fish tutors. The boys used very graphic language to describe what they were going to do to the girl sexually, Fish alleges. He spanked both boys and washed their mouths out with soap and made them apologize to the girl, he says.
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"Spanking my son is important," Fish says. "If I didn't love him, I wouldn't do it. I want him to grow up to be the right kind of guy, who knows how to act."
Giselle Nicolini agrees with Fish's philosophy. Fish has been tutoring and coaching the single mother's two sons, ages 8 and 9, for the last year and a half. "Sometimes words don't do it. Sometimes you have to swat them," says Nicolini, who is originally from Peru. "But all Russell does is swat them on the bottom, no more than that."
As far as Nicolini is concerned, Fish has been a godsend to her children. "Before Russell began working with them, they were getting Cs and Ds on their schoolwork and their behavior," Nicolini says. "One even repeated a year. Now they're getting straight As. I'm really glad I met Russell. I'm a single parent, and sometimes I don't think I'm going to make it."
In his own defense, Fish says: "I spank kids as a last resort. The idea is not to inflict pain, but to get them to pay attention to what they did was wrong. The kids I tutor are out of control most of the time they are not with me. I am usually the only calming and regulating influence in their lives. The point is, there are very few guys who are willing to do what I do--step in and, for no money, try to make a little bit of difference in lives of kids nobody wants. It's important that people who are willing to do the kinds of stuff I do not have to worry about being brought up on criminal charges.