Breaking the Hick'ry Stick
By Diana Hembree, Southern Exposure, Fall 1990

Once Georgia school replaced the paddle with a nonviolent system called "discipline with dignity." But do the kids behave?

Lilburn, GA- It was the year after Jimmy Carter lost the election that Greg Muller made his first visit to the principal's office. His teacher, who had accused the seven-year-old boy of knocking over a classmate's blocks, had marched him there for punishment. Greg was lightheaded with fear. He had heard stories from other children about painful beatings by the principal, and walking down the hallway of Knight Elementary - a large school in the heart of affluent Gwinnett County - he was afraid he might faint. "My hands were sweating and my arms and legs were so tense they hurt," recalls Greg, now 14. "I was terrified."

In the office, he began to cry. After shouting for the boy to hold on to a chair and bend over, the principal slammed the paddle against his buttocks so hard it lifted him off the ground. Then she hit him again. "It felt like someone had stuck a hot iron against my skin," recalls Greg. Although he says a little girl had actually knocked down his classmate's blocks, he didn't even try to protest his innocence. "I don't mean to be rude or anything, but you grown-ups never listen. I just knew it was going to hurt really bad… And it did."

What Greg didn't know was that he was to be one of the last students ever hit at Knight Elementary: in 1983 the school abandoned corporal punishment once and for all. More recently other school districts, cities, and states have followed suit, thanks in large part to pressure from parents and advocacy groups such as the National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment in the Schools.

The practice is still legal in thirty states, including every Southern state except Virginia. Federal records show that at least one million schoolchildren are paddled each year - some suffering severe bruises, broken bones, and concussions - and critics say the real number may be far higher. "Show me a principal who reports every paddling and I've got some land to sell you in Florida - it's all underwater," snorts John Kennedy, deputy school superintendent in Jacksonville.

Although some school administrators argue that corporal punishment is necessary to keep order in the schools, others are slowly recognizing what studies have long shown: that paddling not only scars children emotionally and physically, but may contribute to rather than lessen school vandalism and fighting.

With corporal punishment under siege, and with more principals and teachers laying down their paddles, the question becomes: What kind of discipline will replace the belt, the switch, and the one-by-four board?

The vast majority of schools, including those that continue to paddle, depend on an authoritarian "obedience" model of discipline - one in which students are expected to obey teachers without question or be punished. The most popular such model is Assertive Discipline (AD), a system of rewards and punishments designed to "make" children behave. But critics charge that AD humiliates students and teachers them that they are not responsible for their behavior: Adults are.

A handful of school, meanwhile - including Greg Muller's alma mater, Knight Elementary - are quietly implementing a "responsibility model" of discipline, one in which students learn to take control of their own behavior. Such an approach turns traditional ideas about obedience and punishment upside down - and has left some teachers in Georgia and elsewhere apprehensive. "I don't like paddling, but without it my kids would go wild," one teacher from Texas says, "They'd string me up and nail me to the wall."

What happened at Knight after it threw away the paddle might change his mind.

The New Attitude
When Dr. Burrelle Meeks took over as principal of Knight Elementary in the summer of 1983, the suburban school was plagued by more than its share of rowdiness: students fighting on the playground, throwing food in the cafeteria, smarting off to teachers, and disrupting assemblies with boos and catcalls - all offenses punished by paddling in many Georgia schools. But Meeks, who's 52, knew privately that one thing was certain: She was not going to hit children.

"That's what many people expected a principal to do," she recalls, "and many other principals I knew had advised me never to let anyone know I wouldn't paddle. So I was coming in with a little fear and trembling, to take over a role I didn't believe in."

Meeks herself had not always opposed corporal punishment. Her upbringing in south Georgia was a loving but traditional one that included spanking; as a parent, she occasionally spanked her own children, though not her students. "I didn't know anything else to do when I was young," she says. "You tend to do what was done to you…. But you change, and I came to feel that hitting children teaches them that it's okay to hit people if you're bigger or stronger."

Although she feared some "spare the rod, spoil the child" sentiment at Knight, Meeks instead found a kindred spirit in school guidance counselor Sharon Wilson, who also opposed corporal punishment. Most of the teachers disliked paddling, too, and they were troubled by inconsistency in discipline from class to class. To help look at alternatives, Meeks flew in Barbara Coloroso, an ebullient discipline specialist from Colorado whose basic philosophical tenets include "I will not treat a student in a way that I myself would not want to be treated."

During a two-day workshop with Coloroso in the summer of 1983, the new principal sat down with the Knight faculty and staff and hammered out a schoolwide discipline program - "discipline with dignity," a system of clear, simple rules and consequences that allowed students to take responsibility for their own actions. The six basic rules were no hitting, no stealing or damaging property, no throwing objects such as books or rocks, no defying authority, no abusive language, and no continuous disruptive behavior. Students who broke class rules would go to a "time out desk" where, instead of just cooling their heels, they would write out a plan for how they could avoid breaking the rule again.

But if Knight Elementary was no longer an autocracy, the workings of democracy, as they say had to be learned. When Meeks asked a couple of eight-year-old students what a principal did, she reports, "They said, 'You whip people and make them be good.' And I told them, 'No, I don't need to do that because you're going to take care of yourselves.'"

School Life, Post Paddle
Knight Elementary sits among the sprawling, affluent subdivisions that have swallowed up the pastures and dogwood thickets once found throughout Gwinnett County. On the outside, the school is a flat, nondescript brick building, but the inside is an exuberant burst of color. A large red-and-white quilt with a star design adorns the wall by the entrance, and the deep-red carpeted hallways are plastered with children's paintings, essays, and posters.

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