Monday, October 02, 2006

Nothing Like a Good Swat! Corporal Punishment and Student Discipline in the Schools

I got a good kick, er, laugh, out of this New York Times story on the continued prevalence of corporal punishment in the public schools. It turns out that a large number of schools still practice the old-fashioned swat as a method of disciplining students:

Over most of the country and in all but a few major metropolitan areas, corporal punishment has been on a gradual but steady decline since the 1970’s, and 28 states have banned it. But the practice remains alive, particularly in rural parts of the South and the lower Midwest, where it is not only legal, but also widely practiced.

In a handful of districts, like the one here in Everman, there have been recent moves to reinstate it, some successful, more not. In Delaware, a bill to rescind that state’s ban on paddling never got through the legislature. But in Pike County, Ohio, corporal punishment was reinstated last year. And in southeast Mississippi, the Laurel school board voted in August to reinstate a corporal punishment policy, passing one that bars men from paddling women, but does not require parental consent, as many other policies do.

The most recent federal statistics show that during the 2002-3 school year, more than 300,000 American schoolchildren were disciplined with corporal punishment, usually one or more blows with a thick wooden paddle. Sometimes holes were cut in the paddle to make the beating more painful. Of those students, 70 percent were in five Southern states: Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas.

Often the battle over corporal punishment is being fought on the edges of Southern cities, where suburban growth pushes newcomers from across the country into rural and religiously conservative communities. In these areas, educators say, corporal punishment is far more accepted, resulting in clashing attitudes about child-rearing and using the rod.

“I couldn’t believe it when I learned about it,” said Peggy Dean, a mother of three students in Union County, N.C., a rapidly growing suburb south of Charlotte. “If I’d known, I’d never have moved into this school district.”

As views of child-rearing have changed, groups like the
American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association of School Psychologists and the American Medical and Bar Associations have come out against corporal punishment.

“I believe we have reached the point in our social evolution where this is no longer acceptable, just as we reached a point in the last half of the 19th century where husbands using corporal punishment on their wives was no longer acceptable,” said Murray Straus, a director of the Family Research Laboratory at the
University of New Hampshire.

Among adherents of the practice is James C. Dobson, the child psychologist who founded Focus on the Family and is widely regarded as one of the nation’s most influential evangelical leaders.

DuBose Ravenel, a North Carolina pediatrician who is the in-house expert on the subject for Mr. Dobson’s group, said, “I believe the whole country would be better off if corporal punishment was allowed in schools by parents who wish it.”

Dozens of lawsuits have been filed around the country, including as recently as August in a case involving a student and a baseball coach in Cameron County, Okla., but thus far, courts have tended to side with school districts in cases where a corporal punishment policy is on the books, said Nadine Block, the director of the Center for Effective Discipline, a group opposed to the practice.

In North Carolina, paddling is banned in the largest cities, like Charlotte. It remains legal in 70 percent of the state’s districts, although since they tend to be small and rural, fewer than half of the state’s students are covered.

This is a surprisingly informative piece, for I thought the prohibition of corporal punishment in the public schools was nationwide phenomenon (though I should know better, since I teach federalism as basic principle of American government). As far as I know, corporal punishment is prohibited in California, though it wasn't always that way.

I got swats -- back in the 1970s -- when I was in 7th grade. I had a fistfight with another student in the hall outside some of the social science classrooms at my junior high school. Mr. Bartel, the vice-principle, administered the punishment. I had to stand leaning forward on the side of Mr. Bartel's desk, with my hands placed widespread to brace myself. I'd never gotten a swat before, but Mr. Bartel -- who was short, stocky, and strong -- was known for his punishing wallops. Students actually gained campus respect (we didn't say "street cred" back then, as this was the days of disco not hip-hop) for surviving the paddle. Although, I can tell you, I wasn't looking forward to getting smacked up my backside again, and I never did get in another fight at school.

When I think of it, having gone through the experience myself, I'm not particularly opposed to corporal punishment today. But it's a touchy subject, that's for sure. At home as a kid, Dad used to use the belt, and I sure didn't like it. I told myself I'd never treat my kids like that, and I don't (though a rare but good hand-spanking is not out of the question).

What I really don't like though, is the intense political correctness over parental discipline that the article addresses.
I've skimmed some of James Dobson's books, and he makes a good case for stern family discipline, and he advocates spanking as one parental tool to build character in kids, and especially respect for parental authority. When is a swift spanking child abuse? Should parents never be able to instill some old-fashioned fear into their kids? My old man was old school when it came to punishment. You didn't mess around when he told you to do something. I certainly rebeled against his excesses, but it seems to me that a reasoned judiciousness in the application family corporal punishment might help build stronger kids.

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