Corporal Punishment in Schools: A Presentation to the Hamilton County (TN) Board of Education Corporal Punishment in Schools: A Presentation to the Hamilton County (TN) Board of Education
By Tom Johnson, November 18, 2004

Good evening, my name is Tom Johnson, and I'm a member of Tennesseans for Nonviolent School Discipline. I've come here tonight to talk about some of the problems that exist with corporal punishment, which is allowed under the policy of the Hamilton County Board of Education. I don't know how common the use of corporal punishment currently is in your schools, and possibly there's already been a lot of debate here on the subject. But you all may not be aware that in addition to the usual concerns that kids may get paddled too severely or unfairly, there are some new liabilities in this day and age which need to be taken into account.

I'm guessing that most of you have heard on the news about the Sno Biz frozen treat shop in Red Bank, where the owner has been accused of spanking two 19-year-old female employees. Based on these accusations, he has been charged not merely with physical assault, which is serious enough, but sexual battery, which is a felony. Now, if I were this man's lawyer, I would be pointing out that in Tennessee school teachers and principals spank teenagers all the time, and it's considered by and large to be a harmless and effective disciplinary tool. I would be asking what makes spanking so damnable in a workplace setting while it's perfectly fine in an upper-grade academic setting. This double standard has yet to be examined in a court of law, but in the meantime we can at least ponder it in terms of how strong a sense of bodily integrity we want kids to have.

In another case, for example, a Maryland attorney got in trouble when it came out he was spanking his 17-year-old secretary for making mistakes, as an alternative to firing or suspending her. But if it's OK for her principal to spank her at school to improve her behavior, then why not her boss at work? Young women don't need these mixed messages if they're going to be confident of their right not to be touched in certain places by men in authority. I don't think anyone will dispute that the buttocks qualify as a sexual private area, or that paddling makes intensive contact with that area. Just because it's painful contact against someone who was caught smoking on campus doesn't make it less of a violation.

The AP quotes a Red Bank police officer speculating that the victims went along with the spankings up to a point because they had been "brought up to respect anybody who is an authority figure.'' He could have added that kids who are conditioned at school as well as at home to associate authority with spanking with are all the more likely to submit to similar punishment if proposed to them by an employers, camp counselors, doctors, priests, or what have you.

Mixed messages are hardly the only downside to school paddling, however. This is especially true now that we live in an Internet age. As you probably know, there's an abundance of adult websites out there, but you may be surprised at how many adult websites have corporal punishment as their main focus. It turns out that the idea of young men and women receiving discipline in the form of spanking has drawn a lot of interest that's not particularly wholesome. One such website based in Holland points to the American practice of men paddling high school girls (some of whom, they note, are 18 or 19 years old., and they back this up with examples of real-life high schools located in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Missouri, and Texas, as well as Tennessee. To quote: "The same goes for the Hendersonville Highschool, or even better: all schools in Sumner County, Tennessee. All teachers and members of the school staff have the right to administer corporal punishment, with a paddle on the buttocks."

I'm not trying to argue guilt by association here, but I also don't imagine that having your school discipline policy celebrated on this kind of website is desirable. What's much worse, though, is the fact that this site and several others not only name actual schools, they sometimes name actual students who have been paddled--girls in particular. Often the student's picture will accompany the discussion of the paddling she received. Ask yourself, how would that girl feel to know her name and image were being circulated on the Web, juxtaposed with pictures of naked women and other unseemly content? How would she feel about the fact that a bunch of strangers were entertaining themselves by reading about the painful smacking of her buttocks while she bent over a desk? How would that girl's family feel? I'm guessing not very good.

Now, the only way paddlings become a public matter, generally, is if the parents complain that their child was paddled to the point of bruising, or without parental consent, or without just cause. That's how it makes the local news, from whence it eventually gets distributed on the Internet. So the dilemma now for parents is that they cannot make a complaint of this nature, let alone seek redress, without running the risk that their son or daughter will become fodder for any number of spanking or paddling fetish sites. And with parental recourse so inhibited by this fear, there's no longer much to keep abusive paddling in check. The availability of such remedies, including civil action, was essential to the Supreme Court's decision in 1977 upholding school corporal punishment.

On a separate but closely related point, there is also today a black market for images of minors getting spanked. Four years ago, a Canadian school principal was busted for posessing such images, and in 2002 the FBI broke up a nationwide child-spanking pornography ring. Especially with the tiny cameras they make nowadays, it wouldn't be very hard for someone in a paddling school to obtain marketable footage. It wouldn't take a school official to accomplish this either, just anyone with access to places where paddlings are given--or possibly even a receiver that can pick up security camera signals from outside the school. Even if you're absolutely positive that none of your schools' personnel would ever do such a thing, can you be sure none of the students would?

Some of the other reasons to reconsider the use of paddling in your schools are probably familiar to you, like the psychological impact of intense pain infliction, or the ideal of "zero tolerance" for hitting of any kind. Other reasons are more academic but compelling nonetheless. For example, the fact that the paddle has origins in American slavery. Or the argument that school paddling violates Title IX because girls and boys are impacted differently. Unlike boys, girls who are maturing would have to reveal intimate personal information in order to avoid the chance of this punishment being unfairly compounded by menstrual discomfort. It's also worth noting that among the top 100 U.S. schools ranked by Newsweek in 2003, not a single one is a paddling school. So for anyone who's interested in learning more, I have some information packets.

I appreciate having had this opportunity to address the board and the community. I'd like to close with this statement from a 1980 report by the British Psychological Society:

"Advocates of corporal punishment in schools should examine very carefully the weight of evidence now available and, particularly in light of the pornographic component, consider whether they can justify the continuation of a system with such a capacity for exciting unhealthy interest."

Thank you.

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