MEMPHIS: City school board to discuss ban on paddling
By Lela Garlington
The Commercial Appeal
Should educators who believe in corporal punishment be forced to hang up their wooden paddles or leather straps? The Memphis Board of Education will debate the question tonight.
The argument about physical punishment in schools seems to be a permanent part of the American experience, and last month Lora Jobe, new president of the school board, proposed the ban that will be discussed when the board meets at 5:30 p.m. at the system office on Avery.
Jobe doesn't know if she has the five votes on the board necessary to change the policy, and she doesn't sound optimistic it will happen tonight. "Sometimes you have to talk about things. Hopefully, at some point, we will be able to get rid of it," she said.
Many educators insist that corporal punishment must be available in cases where other efforts at discipline fail. Others, who haven't whacked a child's behind or popped his open palms in years, if ever, say that other disciplinary measures work better.
The leaders of the teachers union don't want corporal punishment banned. The Memphis Education Association's board of directors voted last week to recommend leaving the policy as is.
MEA president Tom Marchand said, "We feel the issue should be left to each individual school community to decide." A ban on corporal punishment "would be taking away one more alternative without replacing it with something else."
City and county school corporal punishment policies don't specify what a principal can use or where on a student's body he can apply it. Any paddling, however, must be witnessed by an administrator, and it can't be inhumane or degrading.
Some principals have elected to use a leather strap on the open palms rather than a wooden paddle. When a child is paddled on the behind, principals say, one to three licks is common. When the punishment is administered on the hands, the most licks is about five. Generally, an assistant principal is the designated hitter.
Among 13 city schools randomly contacted last week, six used corporal punishment and seven didn't.
While disciplinary forms are filed at each of the city's 161 schools, the central office keeps no totals on how many children are being paddled each year.
Arthur Hull, Dr. Charlie Folsom and Tracy Norville are among the city principals who think the policy should remain as is.
Hull estimated he's given 25 paddlings this year to 15 students at A. B. Hill Elementary with a 15-inch leather strap that is about 1 1/2 inches wide.
"It's tough love," said Hull, because many of the children live in households without a father around.
"I don't know anybody who has been damaged psychologically because they've been paddled," he emphasized. But if the policy changes, Hull said in-school suspension would be his alternative. "It's just as effective to me or more because of the isolation. I certainly don't want them home watching (TV talk show host) Jerry Springer or all that other junk."
Folsom also uses a leather strap on his youngsters at Airways Middle School.
"We did a survey of our parents and the majority of our parents support corporal punishment," he said. "Some of our students will ask, `Do y'all give licks? I know I won't be coming to the office.' It does serve as a deterrent for some children."
While acknowledging he doesn't paddle as much as he used to, Whitehaven High principal Norville broke his paddle on a student last year.
"They're designed to break. That way it does not hurt them, it just stings them real good," he said. He described his cherry wood paddle as being about 3/8-inch thick, 2 1/2 inches wide and 19 inches long.
So far, he hasn't spanked any students this year, but his assistant principal has paddled between 10 and 15 students. "As long as it's used with discretion, I think it's an effective means of altering behavior," Norville said.
Others, however, don't paddle and believe other methods achieve more success. That was the case for Michael Murphy, Jerry Marlin and Melanie Suriani. All three principals have given up the paddle.
Carver High's Marlin said he saw the futility in paddling in the early 1980s. Before he could even find out the names of two boys brought in for fighting and using racial slurs, both had bent over, waiting for their paddling.
Their actions caused Marlin to consider a far worse punishment: a tongue-lashing. Once he was through with them, Marlin said, "Those two boys wilted like a rose."
Marlin said he finds it ironic that the education system is the only one still using corporal punishment: "No one gets 40 lashes in prison or in the military. Corporations don't call workers in and ask them to bend over to be spanked. Churches used to whip people. They don't anymore."
Besides the liability, Marlin said, "We're using the very thing we don't want the children to use."
In her six years at Oakhaven, Suriani has never used corporal punishment. As an assistant principal at another school, she did for five years: "That was the expectation. I was whipping the same kids longer and harder to the point it had no effect."
At Oakhaven, an alternative classroom placement is working well and teaches the children how to maintain self-control.
Murphy paddled his last teenager in 1983.
"I'm definitely against it. I think violence usually breeds violence. We live in a different day and time. Plus, it doesn't work for a majority of the students," said Murphy, principal at Raleigh-Egypt High.
Twenty-three states, mostly in the South and Southwest, allow paddling. But according to Education Digest, even where it is allowed by state law, corporal punishment is banned in local school districts or rarely used.
Others suggest that if it's used at all, it should be an infrequent means of discipline. "It should be used sparingly," said Dr. Cynthia Gentry, principal of Havenview Middle.
"We're trying to appeal to the mind and not to the butt," said Gentry, laughing. The last time she paddled a student was two years ago and then only because the mother insisted.
Gentry said she uses such alternatives as after-school detention, time out, exclusion from school activities such as dances or basketball games, or having a child write about what he did, why he did it and how he could have handled it differently.
What she's found is that "a lot of the children want the paddling because they'll say `I don't have to listen to her' or `I don't have to deal with it (the incident that led to the discipline).' "
No child has ever been spanked or paddled at Double Tree Elementary. That's because it's a Montessori school which stresses respect for the child. "I feel like that's the responsibility of the parent and not necessarily ours," said Double Tree principal Charles Mercer.
While Mercer said not having corporal punishment "works for us," he was unwilling to support eliminating it from all the schools.
Kathy Hite, past president of the Craigmont High Parent Teacher Organization, favors leaving the policy as is. "I think we need to empower our teachers. I think if they need to threaten our children, they need to back it up."
Years ago, Hite said, the school secretary at Brownsville Road Elementary swatted her eldest son on the behind for going into the girls' bathroom. Her youngest son also was threatened with a spanking for screaming in the cafeteria. Both actions, she said, were appropriate.
At 285 pounds, the 6-foot-tall James MacFarlane, principal of Kingsbury Elementary, doesn't paddle. "If corporal punishment is so effective, then why do we continue to have disciplinary problems?" he asked.
To reach Lela Garlington, call 529-2349 or send E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org