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School CP - January 1984

Times Educational Supplement, London, 20 January 1984

United States

Paddling furiously

Barry Klein on the central role of corporal punishment


Over the next 12 months, American school officials will hit an estimated 1.7 million children -- many times more than once -- with their hands or a wooden board.

Many of the students will be paddled -- as it is called, due to the shape of the board -- because they talked back to a teacher or for fighting. Others will be hit because they refused to do homework or show up for class.

Although banned in Japan, Israel, the Soviet Union and every European country except Britain, corporal punishment is as much a part of the typical American school curriculum as English or maths.

According to the US Department of Education, 46 of the 50 states are permitting the use of corporal punishment in their tax-subsidized schools. Officials in the US Office of Civil Rights estimate at least 1.5m students were paddled last year, and they say that number will increase in 1984. In other words, about 1 in 28 students attending a public school this year can expect to be disciplined physically.

In some states, that percentage will be considerably higher. Last year, for example, education officials in Florida say about 184,000 students -- or about 1 in 8 -- were paddled at least once.

Corporal punishment in the United States has long been a common means of maintaining student discipline. It also was popular in the mid-nineteenth century, according to periodicals of that time, when deaths occasionally followed its use.

In recent years, several large school districts have wavered in their devotion to the paddle. Few, however, have ever given it up for good.

Over the past 25 years, the legality of using corporal punishment as a means of instilling discipline has been challenged several times.

In 1977 a decision handed down by the US Supreme Court apparently put that question to rest. By 5-4 the court ruled that the "cruel and unusual" punishment clause -- as defined in the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution -- cannot be applied to disciplinary action in the public schools in the same sense it is applied to institutions in the criminal justice system.

In most respects, the system in the Pinellas County school in Florida is a typical example of an urban American school district. Nearly 13,000 Pinellas County students were paddled last year. Even if individual parents objected, they had no authority to stop the spankings. Unlike in most states, Florida law says that only principals can decide whether a student deserves corporal punishment.

Most of the principals, school administrators and school board members who were questioned agreed that corporal punishment served a need in Pinellas County.

Probably the most common defence of corporal punishment is the assumption that teachers and principals stand in the place of parents, and act with their consent.


Mr Scott Rose, superintendent of Pinellas County schools, said none of his students has ever been injured as a result of corporal punishment. "We have guidelines strictly controlling how corporal punishment is to be handled." Those guidelines are:

• Paddling is the only form of corporal punishment that is allowed, and only the principal or someone designated by the principal can authorize its use. Teachers may not physically strike a student except in self-defence. Teachers cannot be required to paddle any student.

• The paddle must be made of wood, and can be no more than two feet long, one-half inch thick, and no less than four inches wide. The paddle cannot contain holes or sharp edges.

• All paddlings must be administered in the presence of another adult, and should never be "degrading or unduly severe". The spanking should be delivered against a student's buttocks. A student cannot be required to remove his or her clothing, and all items should be removed from pockets.

Dr Robert Blume, education professor at the University of Florida, and president of the Association for Humanistic Education, a national organization whose goal is to eliminate corporal punishment by 1990, said teachers should set up a system that rewards the entire class for good behaviour.


In Pinellas County, several schools already employ at least a modified version of Blume's methods. At Lealman middle school, for example, one pupil was paddled last year. Principal Scotty East has instituted an unusual discipline system which is based on the idea that even the worst pupils will accept responsibility for their behaviour if the consequences are clearly outlined and the rewards left clearly within their grasp.

If students behave properly by doing such things as showing up for class, talking only with permission and showing respect for their teachers, they are rewarded with punches on a colour-coded card. If they receive enough punches, they earn a token that resembles a dollar bill. With the token, they can buy items in the school's "token store" or play pinball or pool in the school's game room.

Mr East says the system works. "I don't believe there's any such thing as a bad kid. Some of them just need a little different approach."

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