Southern Schools Rethink Sparing the Rod
Corporal punishment's revival reflects nation's conservative shift
JACKSON, MISS. — EARLY this year, a second-grade teacher in Itta Bena, Miss., collared a disruptive student and walloped him 20 times on the backside as his classmates watched.
Although paddling is permitted in elementary school here, it is supposed to be done temperately, and in private. The teacher was convicted of assault.
Such punishment, of the teacher, may be more the exception than the rule these days.
Across the country - and particularly in the South - school officials and lawmakers are reviving old ideals about keeping order in the classroom with corporal punishment. Those who raise Cain are increasingly receiving the cane.
Proponents say it could help teachers control a student body that is rowdier than ever before. Critics argue that paddling promotes violence, takes power away from parents, and affects a disproportionate number of poor and minority students.
If corporal punishment makes a comeback, it will not only change the tenor of public schools but also mark another triumph for the growing number of Americans who believe that when it comes to social problems - from crime to welfare dependency - the best solution is more discipline.
"Americans are on a conservative kick right now," says Irwin Hyman, a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia and opponent of corporal punishment. "This push to the right means that we're going back to a more punitive society ... and that more kids will be subjected to spankings."
According to statistics compiled by the Department of Education, the South is the nation's most paddle-friendly region. Although 27 states have banned corporal punishment in schools, only one southern state, Virginia, is among them.
In 1992, nearly 12 percent of students in Arkansas received some form of school spanking, a figure four times the national average. Mississippi placed second with 11 percent.
Since then, new paddling laws have been proposed, or old ones upheld, in as many as nine states, including New York, Missouri, and California. Alabama Governor Fob James Jr. (R) has made corporal punishment one of the pillars of his law-and-order message, along with the reinstatement of chain gangs for convicted criminals.
The current push toward paddling, Professor Hyman says, was spurred last year when officials in Singapore whipped American teenager Michael Fay with a rattan cane as punishment for vandalism. While some people expressed outrage at the whipping, others, including lawmakers in Mississippi, proposed similar corporal- punishment laws for street criminals in the United States.
Traditionally, the strongest supporters of corporal punishment have been conservative Christians, who place emphasis on Biblical accounts of discipline.
James Dobson, director of the Colorado-based conservative group, Focus on the Family, is a leading advocate of discipline in the Christian community. In his book "The New Dare To Discipline," Dr. Dobson encourages schools to be moderate, but warns that banning spanking altogether takes away "the tools with which teachers have traditionally backed up their word."
Yet opponents of paddling, like Hyman, argue that there is no proof that paddling is beneficial. "Violence breeds violence," he says. "Corporal punishment involves inflicting pain on another person against their will, and that is what violence is all about." Besides, he says, "Whenever we give people the power to inflict physical pain on others, it's going to be abused."
Here in Jackson, the debate is just heating up. Although the city's school district banned corporal punishment in 1991, incoming Superintendent T.C. Wallace, along with the Jackson School Board, has initiated a review of the policy. Dr. Wallace says he initiated the review after a group of teachers told him that discipline had eroded substantially since the ban.
"There seems to be a growing lack of respect for authority figures here and in schools all over the country," says Dolores Jones, a kindergarten teacher in Jackson and president of the teachers' union. "Children are more difficult to handle because there is not the same alliance between home and school. Parents are abdicating a lot of their responsibilities."
Years ago, Ms. Jones says, teachers had the support and respect of the community, and discipline by teachers was often followed up by discipline in the home. Now, she says, parents are just as likely to sue teachers for striking their children as they are to support them. Teachers, she says, are left with more troubled children and fewer ways to keep classrooms from descending into chaos.
Although conflicted about paddling, Jones says that in order for children to learn, "you have to have order in the classroom." She considers the paddle an effective, if harsh, deterrent to misbehavior.
Poor, minorities struck most
But some experts say any decision to install corporal punishment tends to affect poor children and minorities unfairly. According to Richard Gray, executive director of the Boston-based National Coalition of Advocates for Students, 32 to 33 percent of students paddled are African-Americans, and blacks are twice as likely to be paddled than whites are.
Mr. Gray says corporal punishment accomplishes little more than souring already-troubled kids on school, leading some to drop out. He says paddling is too often used instead of other solutions, like limiting class sizes.
The future of corporal punishment, Hyman says, rests largely with the courts, who have not yet set a clear precedent on whether parents have the right to excuse their children from school-sponsored paddling.
But whatever course the schools take, nobody suggests the solutions are simple. "Everyone's looking for a panacea," says Jones, the Jackson kindergarten teacher, "but there are no easy answers in education. I don't know if you can legislate individuals to become more responsible parents."