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School CP - January 2004
Maclean's, Toronto, 12 January 2004
The Day I Was Whacked
When I got the strap, parents didn't challenge teachers. Times change.
By Brian Bergman
I WAS INTRIGUED to read recently about a mother's outrage over the fact that her eight-year-old son had been shown, though not slapped with, the strap after a teacher pulled him aside for pushing another student to the ground. The incident took place at an elementary school in Warburg, Alta., about 70 km southwest of Edmonton. "I'm extremely upset," said the boy's mother, who plans to challenge the local school board's policy, which allows for corporal punishment. "Under no circumstances will they be giving my child a strap. It is archaic and violent."
Like many others, I suspect, I had thought the strap had gone the way of Hula Hoops and marbles as a fixture of schoolyard life. In fact, it occurs to me that many younger readers may not even know what "getting the strap" means (it was, children, a once common practice wherein teachers or principals would whack errant students several times on the hand with a short length of black leather or rubber in an attempt to change their behaviour). I've since learned that, while corporal punishment is banned from schools in British Columbia, Ontario, the four Atlantic provinces and the three territories, it remains legal elsewhere, with the final decision left up to individual school boards. In Alberta, according to the latest tally, 35 boards shun the practice, 16 allow it (among them, the Black Gold school division, which includes the village of Warburg), and seven have no policy.
The news story stirred up some old memories of my own exposure to the strap, and got me thinking about how our notions concerning classroom discipline have evolved since I attended elementary school in Edmonton in the 1960s. I recall, in particular, the young, male teacher I had for both Grade 5 and 6 -- we'll call him Mr. P. -- who began each school year by soundly slapping the strap on his desk several times as fair warning of what would happen to us if we fell out of line. Mr. P. was also fond of sneaking up behind miscreants (those who, for example, spoke to each other in class) and lifting them out of their desks by their ears. Gallant to a fault, Mr. P. reserved this punishment for the boys. But if the offending students happened to be a boy and a girl, he would also make them go to the front of the class for extended periods of time and hold hands. Surely no crueller fate could befall a 10-year-old.
Since Mr. P. was also our phys. ed. teacher, other dangers lurked in the school gymnasium. One of his favourite activities was dodge ball, a game of tag in which players get hit as hard as possible with a large leather ball. Mr. P. was not above throwing his own shots -- and, believe me, they were stingers -- at students who had somehow displeased him.
As for the strap, I received it only once, and have no memory of my offence. What I do recall is a group of us in the principal's office getting duly whacked. It stung, but did not wound. The trick was not to cry. If you could pull that off, "getting the strap" became a badge of honour.
His sadistic tendencies aside, Mr. P. was a very good teacher. He was the first one to encourage me to write and was full of praise when I penned my first play (a derivative little thing about the Peanuts cartoon characters and a Christmas production), which he got my classmates to stage. If it weren't for him, I might not have spent the past 25 years inflicting my words on hapless magazine and newspaper readers.
So I mention all this not as a way of exorcising personal demons, but to note how profoundly times have changed. As a parent who now has children in elementary school, I find a couple of things stand out. First, it's hard to imagine Mr. P., or his ilk, cropping up today in a mainstream school. Second, if they did, they would surely be rooted out and swiftly shown the door.
As kids, the last thing that occurred to us was to complain about someone like Mr. P. to our parents. As loving and caring as they might have been -- and mine certainly fell into this category -- they wouldn't have thought about challenging a teacher's actions on this score. "The teacher is the boss," they would have said. "You've got to follow the rules." Today, the first thing a kid would do is go to his parents -- and likely elicit a sympathetic response. That's what happened in the Warburg case, where the mother took the extra step of speaking to the media. "It scared him, and I don't think that is an acceptable way to educate children," she told the Edmonton Journal. "You help them understand the reason for their behaviour."
So were we better off then, or now? I am of two minds. When I look at all the schoolyard bullying and the blatant disrespect on display in many classrooms, I think the pendulum has swung too far in terms of our standards of discipline and parents second-guessing teachers. But when I recall the immature and sometimes bizarre actions of a man who was supposed to be an early role model, I am quietly grateful the Alberta school district my children are part of is one that has banned the strap.
Brian Bergman is Maclean's Prairies Bureau Chief.
Calgary Sun, Alberta, 31 January 2004
Ban hits home with educators
By Bill Kaufmann
The court-ordered banning of the use of the strap in classrooms sacrifices a "useful tool," the principal of an Airdrie religious school said yesterday. "It's a loss, but we'll probably be able to work with it," said Brian Hazeltine, principal of Airdrie Koinonia Christian School, which serves 275 K-12 students.
His comments come after the Supreme Court of Canada voted 6-3 to uphold the parental right to spank their children -- as long as they're not teens or under age two.
The court also came out against using objects such as rulers and straps in schools and hitting students.
Hazeltine said his school's leather strap is used sparingly -- two or three times a year -- but has proven an effective form of discipline.
"It's a really useful tool for some kids who seem to need it -- it's garbage to say violence breeds violence, unless it's abuse," he said.
"The court doesn't have a real good moral grounding."
The practice has been falling out of favour among Alberta public and Catholic school boards, who reserve the right to set such policy.
At last count in 2000, just 16 of Alberta's 62 school boards included the strap among discipline options.
The Black Gold Regional School District near Edmonton is one of those and will review its policy, said deputy superintendent Greg Stewart.
A local teachers' representative hailed the court's decision.
"Corporal punishment does not have a place in the school system... it's not an effective means of disciplining," said Noel Jantzie, the ATA's Calgary public school president.
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