Spare the Rod

THE US Supreme Court recently let stand a lower court ruling that schoolchildren don't have any constitutional protections against paddling or other physical punishment by school officials. The case originated in Texas, where state law allows such punishment ``short of deadly force.'' While not deadly, perhaps, the teacher and principal involved did beat two kindergarten girls with a wooden paddle hard enough to leave severe bruises. The children stayed out of school for six days. Their offense had been ``snickering.''

Every parent and teacher knows how difficult the work of disciplining young children can be, and few would deny there are times when physical restraint is called for. But spanking or paddling is a tough enough choice at home, let alone at school. Most educators feel the rod is much more likely to turn children against education than turn them into well-behaved scholars.

Kids attend school, among other reasons, to learn how human beings can work together cooperatively. Hitting people is something they're told not to do. What's the message when a teacher or principal hits them?

The high court, ever mindful of state prerogatives, is at best neutral on this subject. Less than a year ago it let stand a New Mexico ruling that upheld the right of a grade-school girl and her parents to challenge corporal punishment in the schools.

State legislators, who allow the paddling in the first place, may be the best hope for doing away with the practice. Twelve states now outlaw it, with Virginia the latest to do so, just last month.

The fundamental need of American education is to find ways of engaging today's children in the thrill of learning. Fear of pain has no place in that process.

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