Spare the Child? By Daniel Gursky


Outside the sprawling red brick school that serves Olentangy, Ohio's elementary and middle school students, the timeless summer ritual of Little League baseball is in full swing. A modest-sized crowd cheers enthusiastically from bleachers and lawn chairs as one young fielder makes a nice play on the dusty diamond. Inside the school, in front of a much smaller crowd, the Olentangy Local Board of Education is discussing matters of some importance for the would-be baseball stars. The board is reviewing plans to upgrade the field--better dugouts, grass for the infield, safer light poles. Then it turns to a topic that probably is far from the Little Leaguers' minds this evening, but one some of them may be acutely--painfully, to be more precise--aware of some day. The board is debating corporal punishment, a tradition as American as the national pastime itself. The arguments voiced in Olentangy are the same as those reverberating across the country as more and more local school boards and state legislatures consider proposals to ban corporal punishment. Defenders of the practice, many nostalgic for the days when teachers wielded the paddle with impunity, claim that it works: I was paddled and turned out OK, they argue, so what's wrong with paddling today's students? Some intransigent youngsters only respond to a little old-fashioned discipline. Opponents counter with an equally simple argument: Schools shouldn't be in the business of hitting children. They say the practice may temporarily suppress students' bad behavior, but in the long term, it merely teaches violence as the way to solve problems. Parents, opponents point out, could be charged with child abuse if they subjected their kids to many of the disciplinary measures educators legally practice on students. As a recent letter to the editor of The Seattle Times put it: "If you strike an adult, it's called assault; if you strike an animal, it's called cruelty; if you strike a child, it's called discipline." After an emotional debate, the Olentangy schoolboard votes 3-2 to keep its current discipline policy. In other words, teachers and principals in the 2,100-student district can still spank youngsters.

Corporal punishment usually is equated with paddling, but more broadly defined, it is any punishment that inflicts bodily pain for disapproved behavior. The corporal punishment abolitionists, as some opponents of this type of discipline call themselves, may have failed in Olentangy, but lately they've been winning many of their battles. In just the past five years, more than a dozen states have banned corporal punishment in their schools; last spring, Montana became the 22nd state to do so. Many cities and towns have taken similar action. The anti-corporal-punishment movement has reached every state. Increased sensitivity to child abuse--both in the home and in society at large, including school--has bolstered the movement. Many influential national groups, including the American Bar Association and the American Medical Association, as well as education organizations such as the National Education Association and the National PTA, have all condemned corporal punishment.

Although the abolitionists find these trends encouraging, the numbers don't tell the whole story. Granted, the ranks of non-paddling states are growing; but only a few of those states used corporal punishment widely before banning it. Teachers in many of the states that enacted bans probably didn't notice a difference. Connecticut, for example, reported just 90 cases statewide a few years before its 1989 ban.

And teachers and school officials wield the paddle as often and with as much conviction as ever in many areas, especially the Bible Belt states of the South and Southwest. According to U.S. Education Department figures, more than 1 million students nationwide are spanked each year. (Anti-paddling activists maintain that the true number may be two or three times that.) Texas alone racks up more than 250,000 paddlings per year. Add Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee, each with more than 60,00 0 annual cases, and the number constitutes more than half of the nation's total. Arkansas earns the dubious distinction of leading the country in the proportion of students paddled each year--almost 14 percent.

American teachers who use corporal punishment are almost alone in the world. Among developed countries, only Canada and Australia allow paddling, and entire provinces in both those nations have abolished it; even England, home of the fabled stern, switch-carrying headmaster, abolished corporal punishment six years ago. China, Japan, South Africa, and the Soviet Union--none of them known for their lax school discipline--have all banned corporal punishment.

Why is the practice so ingrained in this country, yet almost extinct elsewhere? Part of the answer, some say, lies with the pervasive violence and aggression in American society; as violence spreads from the streets to the schools, no-nonsense physical punishment holds a gut appeal for many people. Others attribute the lasting popularity of corporal punishment to the influence of conservative religious beliefs about the importance of punishment, even on secular schools. (According to historian Philip Greven, some believers are convinced that God provided the buttocks as a strategic body part for punishment because of their ample cushion and sensitive nerve endings.)

More than anything, however, support for paddling reveals a reluctance to question a practice that occurs in almost every household. "It's difficult to criticize teachers who do something that parents do in their own homes," says Jordan Riak, director of Parents and Teachers United Against Violence in Education. "We are a very violent nation toward our children, but people don't want to face this."

Greven offers a similar argument in his book Spare the Child: "Most of us instinctively defend the practice of corporal punishment, partly out of loyalty to our own parents and grandparents, partly out of anxiety about ourselves (especially if we as parents have used physical punishments in rearing and disciplining our own children, as most of us have), and partly out of an unwillingness to think that something so common and so ordinary could be so consequential and so damaging to so many of us."

Greven's assertion that physical punishments are "so damaging" undoubtedly antagonizes legions of fathers, the traditional dispensers of spankings and other painful punishments. Many parents believe spankings teach children to behave better--and the mere threat of future spankings makes them think twice about misbehaving. The same reasoning is applied in schools. "I don't think it hurts [for teachers] to express some anger once in a while," Arizona lawmaker Bev Hermon told The Phoenix Gazette. Hermon, who chairs the legislature's education committee, has used her position t o block action on a measure that would ban corporal punishment.

Whenever the subject of corporal punishment arises, proponents of paddling in schools advance some variation of this "I don't think it hurts" argument. During the Olentangy debate, Jerry Cline, one of the board members who voted to keep corporal punishment, offered this version: "I don't think a swat on the rear end hurts any kid. Our administrators should be allowed to do their job as effectively as possible. And if they feel that corporal punishment is an effective deterrent, I don't see any reason whatsoever to change our policy."

Gary Bauer, a former high-level Reagan administration official, says he remembers refraining from the temptation to break school rules because he feared the paddle. Now president of the Family Research Council, a "conservative, profamily" think tank, Bauer sees nothing wrong with continuing the tradition of corporal punishment, especially on elementary school students. "With younger children," he argues, "the threat of a slap on the rear can often be enough to keep a classroom in line. The reasonable use of spanking doesn't run the risk of any kind of damage to the child. It' s more likely to help the child develop into a reasonable citizen."

Bauer's Family Research Council was one of the few organizations that praised Washington, D.C., Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly when she suggested last spring that schools in the nation's capital consider bringing back the paddle. Educators and other children's advocates roundly condemned Kelly when she said teachers and principals in her city need "the authority to discipline, including, if need be, spanking young people." Implicit in Kelly's appeal is a longing for the days when educators ruled with authoritarian firmness. "You were terrified of violating the rules of the teacher," she told NBC-TV, "and my goodness, if you ended up in the principal's office, that was the worst thing possible." As some perceptive observers point out, however, none of Kelly's visits to the office could have resulted in a paddling because the district--where she attended public school--outlawed corporal punishment more than 70 years ago.

Kelly, who lacks the authority to reinstate paddling, quickly backed off her proposal. But her argument clearly strikes a responsive chord among some educators, such as Jean Baresic, a math teacher at McGary Middle School in Evansville, Ind. Baresic, who says she has used the paddle sparingly--but effectively, in her view--over the years, supports her district's "proper and appropriate" use of corporal punishment. She recalls paddling one male student after a girl complained that the boy had been touching her improperly. "Sad to say," Baresic says, "but some students don't respond to anything short of that. I've tried everything, then I give them one swat on the behind, and they straighten up for the rest of the year. There are a lot of kids who will back off just because they know I'll use it, so I rarely have to use it."

To its proponents, corporal punishment is essentially just another disciplinary tool, perhaps a bit more severe than, say, detention hall, but not qualitatively different. Opponents disagree. To them, school personnel have no right to cross the line from verbal discipline to physical punishment. Spanking may be appropriate in the home, they say, but it has no place in school. "Professional educators who are trained and licensed have an obligation not to follow the bad examples of families," argues Jordan Riak, who almost single-handedly persuaded California's legislature to ban corporal punishment in 1986.

"We want to see children have better ways of dealing with problems," says Nadine Block, coordinator of the National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment in the Schools. "If we in the schools do not teach children to solve problems with words, if we hit them for being aggressive and fighting, we can't expect that they will learn to do things differently. We need to be a good example."

Regina Pitcher certainly didn't like the example Casa Grande (Ariz.) Junior High School set for her son, Jacob. Most schools notify parents by phone when their children are paddled. But Pitcher, a science teacher at her son's school, merely had to walk about 100 feet down the hall to find out that the shop teacher had paddled Jacob and two classmates for nicking a table with a router. The paddling took place despite Pitcher's written request that Jacob be included on the school's "no-swat list," a roster circulated to teachers listing students whose parents don't want their children paddled.

When Pitcher complained to the superintendent, she was told it was "a personnel matter." Pitcher saw it differently and filed a police report. A detective investigated her complaint, but ultimately, the county attorney declined to prosecute the shop teacher. "If I did this to my own son in my own home," says Pitcher, referring to a paddle-shaped welt that didn' t go away for two weeks, "I would be brought up for child abuse."

Bruises like Jacob's probably represent the most common injury caused by paddling. But opponents of corporal punishment provide vivid descriptions--often accompanied by full-color photos--of other wounds inflicted on students in the name of discipline. It's a list that would make a stunt man or rodeo cowboy proud: broken bones, ruptured blood vessels, hematomas, muscle and nerve damage, whiplash, spinal injuries, and many more. Corporal punishment has also been implicated in student deaths, such as that of an Edwardsburg, Mich., boy who died of cardiac arrest in 1988 while doing a forced running exercise as a form of punishment.

And while paddles--many of them constructed in wood shop by their potential victims--are the most common instrument of physical discipline, corporal punishment certainly isn't limited to paddling. "Children are beaten, slapped, punched, whipped, thrown against walls, stuck with pins, locked in closets, forced to eat noxious substances, and abused in other creatively sadistic ways," according to Major Owens, a Democratic congressman from New York, who includes being shocked with a cattle prod, burned with tacking irons, chained to a car bumper and dragged around a parking lot, and locked in a coffin-shaped box in the "creatively sadistic" category. Owens, a long-time opponent of corporal punishment, has introduced legislation that would withhold federal funds from any educational institution that allows corporal punishment, although the measure stands little chance of passing.

While many focus on the physical trauma associated with corporal punishment, educational psychologist Irwin Hyman, who heads the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives in the Schools, has trained his work on the emotional and psychological impact. He maintains that 1 percent to 2 percent of students who are paddled develop what he calls "educator-induced post traumatic stress disorder." In young children, Hyman sees bed-wetting, sleep disorders, and increased anxiety, among many other symptoms. Adolescents' symptoms include depression, poor peer relationships, and even thoughts of suicide. "Pain temporarily suppresses behavior," Hyman says. "It also causes anger, humiliation, and a desire to get revenge."

Hyman's studies have also shown that corporal punishment tends to be passed down through the generations; teachers who were hit as children do most of the paddling in schools. Another study, done in the mid-1980s by two researchers at Middle Tennessee State University, developed a psychological profile of paddle-wielding teachers. The researchers' conclusions don't paint a very flattering picture. "Heavy users of corporal punishment," they reported, "tended to be relatively inexperienced, closed-minded, neurotic, and impulsive compared to their peers who did not use corporal punishment."

Shocking as they may be, these litanies of physical injury, psychological damage, and seemingly unstable teachers have not turned the vast majority of teachers and the general population against corporal punishment. A 1988 Gallup poll found that 50 percent of the public approves of paddling in schools, 45 percent oppose it, and 5 percent aren't sure. Deep divisions also mark teachers' opinions on the issue, although most surveys show that a slight majority of teachers oppose the use of corporal punishment. If regional figures were available, they would almost certainly indicate a Civil War-type split, with many more Southern teachers favoring the paddle than their colleagues in other parts of the country.

For some people, it takes a firsthand experience with paddling to change their minds. Take Dick Schafrath, a rather unlikely figure in the movement to ban corporal punishment. A Republican senator in the Ohio legislature, Schafrath played football at Ohio State University and later for the Cleveland Browns. In high school, largely because of his imposing 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pound size, Schafrath was chosen as the school's designated paddler; each day, during 7th period study hall, he paddled students who had committed offenses their teachers deemed worthy of corporal punishment.

"I did a lot of paddling," he recalls. "It had quite an effect on me." In fact, the experience turned Schafrath into a steadfast opponent of corporal punishment. Three times in recent years he has introduced legislation to ban the practice in Ohio, but it has never been approved by both houses. "Kids are like sponges," says Schafrath, a father of seven. "They soak up what other people do. If teachers are going to hit somebody, it has a lasting effect not only on the person they hit but also on the people who witness it."

The anti-paddling forces have also tried to bolster their case by arguing that corporal punishment is discriminatory: Figures show that non-white males--especially blacks--are paddled at least twice as often as whites. And handicapped students may be the most frequent recipients of corporal punishment. Often, opponents say, handicapped students lack the social, emotional, or academic skills needed to behave in such a way to avoid being paddled; what looks like misbehavior to the teacher may be an inability to conform to classroom rules.

Opponents of the paddle say that outlawing all forms of corporal punishment actually can improve schools. Once the element of fear is removed, their argument goes, students will feel more at ease in school and will learn more. They also say it would help if educators realized that quiet, orderly classrooms--sometimes maintained by the threat of paddling--may not be the ideal they once thought. Engaged, interested students make noise, and it's unrealistic--even harmful--to expect them to remain silent all day.

But many teachers who have spent their careers in districts that endorse corporal punishment want to know what will take the place of the paddle if it's banned; they can't imagine adjusting to life without it. A survey from Ottawa may provide some comfort for educators worried about change. Before corporal punishment was banned in the Canadian province, 85 percent of principals and half the teachers favored it; a few years after the practice was banned, however, researchers could find almost no one who would say they still supported paddling.

Edgar Taylor, principal of Houston's Clear Lake High School, is one administrator in this country who's happy his school followed Ottawa's lead. He is convinced that his school is a better place since it banned corporal punishment six years ago. "Paddling a kid causes hard feelings, and it causes emotional stress on teachers and students," Taylor says. "I believe that we have a more peaceful, harmonious campus here now."

Discipline at Clear Lake begins with making students aware of expectations for proper behavior from the start of school. Those expectations--get to class on time, respect others, bring all materials to class every day, and the like--are posted on the walls, and teachers are expected to see that they are met. Consequences for breaking the rules are set out in advance. Students also know that their parents may be contacted if they misbehave or that they could be referred to juvenile authorities if the situation really gets out of control.

Abolitionists praise the kind of common-sense approach employed by Taylor and promote an array of other alternatives to corporal punishment, every thing from preparing behavior plans with students and parents to in-school suspension. Many contend that teachers need more and better training in psychology and human behavior and how those subjects relate to discipline. The key, says Nadine Block of the National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment in Schools, is to develop a straightforward, comprehensive approach to discipline. "Good schools," she notes, "plan as much for lunchroom behavior as they do for academics."

Too many schools, psychologist Irwin Hyman argues, equate discipline with punishment; as a result, efforts to prevent misbehavior receive little attention. A more productive atmosphere results when schools emphasize positive, desirable student behavior rather than merely compiling a list of all the things students aren't allowed to do.

Most often, Hyman points out, the decision to paddle a child rests with teachers: No one forces them to paddle their students or send them to the principal for a swatting. "It all really comes down to individual teachers," he says. "And good teachers, in general, do not hit kids. Good teachers inspire kids to learn; they don't try to use fear or punishment."

Regina Pitcher, the teacher whose son was paddled against her wishes, agrees with Hyman. And she argues that the mere existence of corporal punishment denigrates teachers because it implies that they can't do their jobs without relying on the threat of violence. If corporal punishment is banned and teachers can no longer rely on it for a quick solution, Pitcher notes, they'll be forced to get to know their students better and find the causes of their behavior. "Anyone can go into a class with a loaded gun and get the kids to listen," she says. "The challenge is to manage the class so that kids come in willingly, respect the teacher, and enjoy learning."

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