To paddle or not to paddle? It’s still not clear in US schools.

By on March 17, 2005

When it comes to spanking, there’s no such thing as a consensus in America’s schools.

Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia have outlawed corporal punishment in public schools, all in the past 40 years.

But as the number of students feeling the sting of the paddle declines, some parents and educators are digging in to defend it as an effective form of discipline.

It’s another symbol of the nation’s red-blue divide. Most states that still allow the practice are in the South and Midwest. But policies long favoring corporal punishment have come up for debate recently on Southern school boards – in Union County, N.C.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Dallas.

“It’s very uneven terrain out there,” says Ronald Rohner, who is not pro or con but has researched the issue as director of the University of Connecticut’s Center for the Study of Parental Acceptance and Rejection. “There’s a movement back to it on the part of some schools, but some are banning it for the first time…. We’ll be hearing more and more about this as time goes by.”

Two recent cases show how strong the passions are on both sides, and how individuals can sometimes find themselves up against the prevailing local standard:

• In Chicago, the mother of a 6-year-old was called in to his private Christian school after he received multiple disciplinary notes for talking in class, chewing gum, and not completing assignments, the Chicago Tribune reported last week.

The mother said an administrator told her to spank her son there at the office or he would be suspended. The corporal punishment policy is in the school’s handbook, but the mother was surprised by the ultimatum. She does not practice spanking and has withdrawn her son from the school.

• Scott McConnell, a graduate student in the education program of Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., was told he could not continue because of a mismatch between the college’s goals and his personal beliefs about teaching. One of those beliefs (expressed in a paper that received an A-minus) was that corporal punishment has a place in classroom discipline.

Corporal punishment is not allowed in New York public schools, but he says he didn’t advocate practicing it in violation of the law.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a Philadelphia group, has taken up his case as a matter of academic freedom, and he hopes to be readmitted.

Mr. McConnell says his view is partly based on his own transformation from rude to respectful after being paddled by a caring teacher in the fourth grade.

Many defenders cite the Bible as their guide, saying that if a child needs correction, it’s not loving to spare the rod.

“If the spanking can be done by an individual who knows the child and the child’s parents, as is often the case in private schools and Christian schools, and if the parents wish that to be done, then it can be appropriate as long as it’s in the proper context,” says DuBose Ravenel, a pediatrician in High Point, N.C., and an adviser to the evangelical group Focus on the Family.

Dr. Ravenel does not support school corporal punishment for teenagers, and says it generally should be used only on children under 10.

Other proponents say it’s practical for parents to be able to opt for the quick lesson of corporal punishment, rather than to have the student miss classes because of suspension.

Opponents counter that the practice is too likely to lead to abuse, and that schools should be better role models.

“In the past 30 years, we have gotten better at understanding what makes kids tick…. We’ve got some alternatives to spanking … and educators have a responsibility to teach kids how to solve problems without resorting to spanking,” says Sal Severe, a veteran school psychologist and parent educator.

A number of child-advocacy groups have positions similar to the National Association of School Psychologists, which states that “corporal punishment negatively affects the social, psychological and educational development of students and contributes to the cycle of child abuse and pro-violence attitudes of youth.”

Research weighs heavily in favor of alternatives, says Nadine Block, executive director of the Center for Effective Discipline in Columbus, Ohio. “The big catchword today is evidence-based practices, and there’s no evidence to support corporal punishment in schools…. If it works, it should work the first time. They hit the same kids over and over.”

Too often, she says, it’s not used as a last resort, despite what policies dictate. And in some districts, “they don’t allow parents to opt out.”

A charter school student has sued in Texas, claiming she was injured after being restrained and hit with a wooden paddle known as “Ole Thunder,” the San Antonio Express-News reports. Although her mother had signed a form permitting corporal punishment, the student had since turned 18, and claims that as an adult the school needed her consent.

Another common criticism is that racial minorities, children with disabilities, and boys bear the brunt of corporal punishment.

At one elementary school in Union County, for instance, black children were 47 percent of the student body but received 82 percent of the paddling in 2003-04, according to an analysis by the Charlotte Observer.

The superintendent has suspended corporal punishment until the school board revises or eliminates the policy.

Although experts say that 80 to 90 percent of American parents have resorted to spanking at one point or another, the trend toward alternative forms of discipline at home – everything from “timeouts” to taking away privileges – has led to less corporal punishment at schools, too.

Between 1980 and 2000, the number of students struck in US public schools declined from 1.4 million to 342,000, according to analysis by the Center for Effective Discipline of data from the US Department of Education.

Two states – New Jersey and Iowa – ban the practice in private schools. But even where it’s legal, some private schools are shifting away from corporal punishment for pragmatic reasons.

In its next newsletter, the Colorado-based Association of Christian Schools International plans to advise its member schools (including 4,000 in the US) against paddling.

“It’s in recognition of the highly litigious society we’re in right now,” says Burt Carney, the group’s director for legal and legislative issues. “It’s just probably wiser for schools not to use that type of punishment.”

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Schools: Le Moyne College University of Connecticut