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School CP - December 1995

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School Board News (National School Boards Association), Alexandria, Virginia, 5 December 1995

Is paddling on its way back?

(as condensed in Education Digest)

By Carol Chmelynski, Assistant Managing Editor, School Board News

The message which parents and other caretakers hammer home to get preschoolers to grasp the concept of nonviolent conflict resolution is "No hitting -- use words to express your feelings." But many adults now believe that student behavior in the classroom has gotten so out of control that the only way to restore order is to paddle wrongdoers.

During the past few decades, the trend has been to enact laws and regulations banning corporal punishment -- generally on the grounds that it's not effective and often leads to abuse. Now many state lawmakers and school officials want to bring it back.

Twenty-three states allow paddling. But in many cases, where it's allowed by state law, it's banned in local school districts or rarely used. Among the 27 states that ban paddling, 21 of them do so by state law, four by state regulation, and two by an act of the state school board.

Paddling is more prevalent in schools in the South, Southwest, and rural areas, says Irwin A. Hyman, director of the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives, at Temple University, in Philadelphia. The most frequent victims tend to be males, younger students, the poor, and minorities, says Hyman, who asserts that up to three million incidents of corporal punishment take place in schools each year.

"It's crazy. There is not one iota of evidence that corporal punishment has any educational or disciplinary value," Hyman says. "But a lot of people are not only resisting that. They are moving in the opposite direction."

What has "stimulated and emboldened many lawmakers and citizens to call for the return to corporal punishment," says Hyman, is the widely publicized incident in which Michael Fay, a 19-year-old Ohio youth, was subjected to caning after being convicted of vandalism in Singapore.

A related factor has to do with the back-to-the-basics trend in schools in the United States. "The nation's attitude toward corporal punishment in schools is in flux," explain Ronald T. Hyman [no relation to Irwin] and Charles H. Rathbone in Corporal Punishment in Schools: Reading the Law. "Reform from the right seeks a return to accountability, authority, and an increased demonstration of order in schools, while reform from the left seeks to create of each school a sanctuary from burgeoning social violence, especially violence against children that is documented with regularity in the media."

In states and school districts across the nation, paddling has been making a comeback in recent years. For example:

Alabama Governor Fob James, Jr., signed a law last August promising teachers that if they decide to spank a student, their school boards will be obliged to back them if they are taken to court.

Virginia has a state ban on corporal punishment but allows teachers to use "reasonable and necessary" physical force to maintain order and prevent violence. A law passed in 1995 promises that teachers will be backed in court if they use such force in the classroom.

Kentucky lawmakers banned corporal punishment in 1991, but reversed that law a year later, arguing that the issue is best decided in each community.

The North Fork School District in Utica, Ohio, approved a paddle last year that is four inches wide, 18 inches long, and at least one inch thick.

"No one has been paddled in our [1,860-student] school district in at least three years, and none of our schools even has a paddle," says Superintendent Linda Booth. But the school board wanted corporal punishment as an option and followed state guidelines in developing its policy, she says.

Two Districts

In Illinois, the General Assembly outlawed corporal punishment in public schools in early 1994 with a strong majority, but two southern Illinois districts -- Benton and DuQuoin -- want to reinstate it. Benton Superintendent Allen Patton says paddling students is necessary because suspensions don't always work. "A student will be suspended for two days and spend it watching TV," Patton says. "The general deportment of students has deteriorated greatly" since the ban. "Students no longer have respect for authority. . . They no longer follow directions."

A new law passed in Illinois in 1995 allows districts to apply for waivers or modifications of education requirements to encourage more creativity and flexibility in the classroom. Patton says his district decided, after much debate, to take advantage of the new law to reinstate paddling.

The Benton school system's corporal punishment policy has some built-in safeguards, he says. Only school principals are allowed to administer the punishment, which probably would be a paddling, and parents can demand that their children not be disciplined in such a manner.

Patton says he sees corporal punishment as a deterrent. "We wish for this to be the same as an insurance policy. We don't want to beat or abuse children. All we ask for is that parents are given a choice," he says. Parents come in and say, 'I've lost control of my child and I want you to paddle them.' We can't do it now."

But the sponsor of the law to allow districts to seek waivers says it never was intended to become a back door to corporal punishment. "I never would have anticipated this," says Representative Mary Lou Cowlishaw, of Naperville. "I don't think, in a day and age where there is an almost incredible level of violence in our society and in the movies, it's the time to set the example of solving problems through violence."

The General Assembly voted against the Benton and DuQuoin districts' requests. During the debate, Representative Larry Woolard, of Carterville, one of the few lawmakers who defended the districts' requests, said "What we're talking about here is not beating a child . . . but establishing some kind of control."

In Idaho, corporal punishment is legal but rarely used, according to Roger Henshew, state supervisor of professional standards. However, in 1994, when the Murtaugh, Idaho, school board directed Keith Adams --the new principal of the junior and senior high schools there -- to reduce the number of suspensions, he brought in his half-inch-thick, 18-inch-long paddle. It has 13 holes drilled into it to make paddling sting.

School policies call for students to be suspended the second time they fail to obey school authority. With a parent's permission, a student facing detention or suspension can choose paddling instead. During the 1994-95 school year, 26 students filed into Adams' office, grabbed their ankles, and received their swats. Witnesses were present each time. Most parents, teachers, and students support Adams.

Murtaugh school board Chairman Stuart Tolman says the practice was adopted to appease parents who are calling for more discipline in the schools. Suspensions just give kids a holiday, he says. Paddling works, Adams maintains, noting that there were no suspensions at all last year.

Hyman dubs that kind of thinking "dead wrong. Students always choose paddling because it's over quickly. But paddling is the least effective means of discipline. All it does is decrease behavior for the time being; it doesn't extinguish it. A parent who uses corporal punishment is a parent who has failed; it is all they know to do. Educators who use corporal punishment are emulating parents who have failed. Educators could eliminate 50 percent of their discipline problems if they would just ask themselves if the curriculum is appropriate for each child."

George Batsche, a school psychologist at the University of South Florida and past president of the National Association of School Psychologists, believes educators can avoid most disciplinary problems, and the use of corporal punishment, by teaching social skills and conflict resolution, building home-school partnerships, clearly specifying conduct rules at the beginning of the year, offering praise whenever students act appropriately, and modifying the curriculum to meet the individual needs of students. When students misbehave, Batsche suggests, educators should respond by removing attention from the child, imposing natural consequences that relate to the behavior, removing the student from the situation, and canceling privileges.

Most schools set guidelines on the use of corporal punishment, critics of the practice note, but school boards still face the possibility that a parent will sue. "School boards find themselves in double jeopardy," Hyman notes. "They are forced to defend what is obviously abuse, and if they lose, their insurance company pays the expense."

In 1994, David Edmonds, assistant principal at Oakland Elementary School, in Fayette County, Tennessee, was charged with assault for allegedly bruising a student during the course of paddling. The case was dismissed. But after that incident and several similar ones had taken place, the school board approved a new policy on corporal punishment with hopes that it would end injuries and complaints.

The new policy states that only principals or their designees can paddle students, and they cannot administer more than "three swats with a district-approved wooden paddle, squarely on the buttocks, with reasonable and not excessive force, that does not result in injury or prominent bruising."

Under the old policy, paddles came in all shapes and sizes. Now, only approved paddles can be used. The paddle must be constructed of quality white ash, and cannot be longer than 15 inches for students in grades K-5 and 18 inches for grades 6-12.

However, Edmonds says his paddling days are over: "I don't want to go through that again. It just wasn't worth it." He now says he uses other means of discipline and hasn't seen an increase in problems since the paddling has stopped.

Copyright 1996 by Prakken Publications.

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