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Video clips: USA

Principal Steve Halter with his paddle

With comments by C. Farrell

2008 TV documentary about a paddling school in Arkansas

These are three excerpts from a so-called "reality TV" documentary series or "docusoap" (August 2008) called The Principal's Office. The series, made by TruTV, looked at the lives and work of 30 school principals in different parts of the USA.

 These extracts focus on two students who receive corporal punishment, a boy and a girl.

Nancy entering the principal's office At Booneville High School in western Arkansas (grades 10 through 12), principal Steve Halter routinely deals with students who break the rules by committing them to Saturday School. This involves being detained half the day or all day on Saturday, depending on the seriousness of the offense.

 However, as is common in some parts of the South, he gives them the choice of taking three paddle licks instead of half a day's Saturday School. Both forms of discipline are provided for in the school district's written policies (still in place as of 2021).

 In the first clip (4 mins 55 secs), Nancy ("Miss Booneville 2008"), aged about 17, is summoned to the principal's office for repeated failure to arrive at school on time. Her tardiness has been so chronic that she must serve a whole day of Saturday detention, but she can get out of half of it by opting for three licks. She asks to inspect the paddle, which is evidently new to her. (This part of the scene seems a little contrived.) She hesitantly chooses to take the paddling because she needs the time on Saturday. She will still have to serve half a day's detention on Saturday as well. The paddling will take place on the Friday.

 In the corridor, a male student (not the one we are to meet later) talks briefly to the camera about the procedure for paddling, presumably from personal experience. Students are often crying when they emerge from the office, he claims.

 Friday comes round, and Nancy is one of a handful of miscreants assembling in the principal's office. They are all due to attend Saturday school the following day. Those who choose that option are then free to leave, leaving three students who wish to be dealt with by corporal punishment. They can still change their minds up to this last moment. They are asked to wait outside the office and then invited in one by one to be disciplined. While waiting in the corridor, there is a brief, mostly incomprehensible discussion between Nancy and Shorty, whom we shall meet in clip 2. She seems to be having last-minute doubts. Then Mr Halter invites her in and a few moments later we can hear the three swats on the seat of her jeans. Before long she emerges, smiling, from the office. It does not seem to have been too bad an ordeal.

Shorty interviewed in hallway In the second excerpt (2 minutes 55 seconds), we see a "junior", i.e. an 11th-grader aged c.17, nicknamed "Shorty", in the principal's office, for repeatedly being late getting back to class after lunch. His excuse, which leaves Mr Halter unmoved, is that he was walking his girlfriend to her class. He is told that for accumulating six tardies he must spend a day in Saturday school, unless he opts to receive corporal punishment, in which case he has only to serve half a day.

 Shorty decides to take the spanking, since he too has other things he needs to do on Saturday, notably that he is on call for his weekend job at Sonic. But he has until Friday to change his mind. Interviewed in the corridor, he tells the camera that he knows the licks are going to hurt, because principal Steve is a big man.

 In the third clip (2 minutes 40 seconds), on Friday, we see Shorty entering the office. As with Nancy, the camera doesn't follow him in, presumably because that would contravene the district rules requiring privacy. But once again we can hear what happens inside the room. We have seen this TV technique before -- letting us hear, but not see, the punishment taking place -- in the 1978 documentary from Butler, Pennsylvania.

 The principal asks the boy to bend over the chair with his hands flat on the chair seat. Three loud whacks are then heard as the paddle makes contact with his buttocks, each of the first two being followed by a gasp of pain. It sounds more severe than Nancy's punishment. This would be consistent with anecdotal evidence that boys tend to get spanked harder than girls.

 Shorty is then seen leaving the office. Later he is interviewed again in the hallway. He says he didn't cry because "crying is for babies" and, if one is going to opt for the swats, one has to take them like a man, or words to that effect. These remarks give the impression that he did find the punishment hard and painful, confirming what the other male student said in the first clip.

 In this particular group of offenders, Nancy was the only girl to choose a paddling. Conversely, the subgroup who opted for a day's Saturday school and no CP included some boys as well as a girl. This runs a bit counter to the popular cultural stereotype whereby teenage boys given this choice are supposed almost invariably to opt for the paddle, and to regard "not taking your licks" as "only for wimps".

 Questions naturally arise as to how "real" or "authentic" all this is. We are familiar by now with "reality TV" shows like Big Brother, where the complaint is usually not that the events shown have been faked, but that they wouldn't have happened at all if the TV producers had not invented the format in the first place. In the case of The Principal's Office, some commentators on various web forums maintained that the whole thing was a spoof or that it must have been faked up or staged from start to finish. But it turned out that these were ill-informed people who simply refused to believe that school corporal punishment was allowed anywhere in the US as recently as 2008.

 In fact we know for certain that Arkansas allows paddling, that Booneville High School exists, that it says on its website that it may give up to three swats, that official statistics show it was still doing so in school year 2015/16 (57 students spanked out of an enrollment of about 300), and that Steve Halter was its principal in 2008. This is not an artificial event concocted for TV purposes, like Big Brother or indeed That'll Teach 'Em. Some of the dialogue might have been scripted or rehearsed, and no doubt there is some "playing to the camera". But I see no reason to doubt that the participants were real high-school students at the time, or that those depicted as getting three swats did get three swats.

CLIP 1 OF 3:

CLIP 2 OF 3 (new version, improved quality):

CLIP 3 OF 3 (new version, improved quality):

IMPORTANT: Copyright in this video material rests with the original copyright holders. These brief excerpts are reproduced under the "fair use" doctrine EXTERNAL LINK: opens in new window for private, non-profit, historical research and education purposes only. They must not be redistributed or republished in any commercial context.

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