River City News, November 1, 1997

Schools spare rod Fewer instances of paddling in Duval over past decade
By Mary MacDonald, Staff writer

The oblong paddle used to be the backbone of discipline in Duval County public schools. Children who misbehaved faced a swat.

Corporal punishment remains an option for all principals, but many have abandoned its use. Incidents of spankings have dropped substantially in the past decade, from 23,000 in 1985 to fewer than 3,000 last year.

Principals say they increasingly question its effectiveness as a deterrent, are reticent to spank a child or are leery of lawsuits.

In 75 of 128 schools last year, the paddle was never used, school records show.

"My function is not to beat kids," said Theresa Hodge, principal of Paxon Middle School. Last year, before she became principal, 120 students there received spankings.

By comparison, no children were spanked at Arlington Middle School, where Hodge was principal until July.

"Corporal punishment, to me, only makes a child rebel," Hodge said.

Her opinion is backed by many child advocates and recent research.

A report published in August by the American Medical Association found spanking children ages 6 to 9 backfires on parents.

The more a parent spanks a child, over time, the worse the behavior becomes, according to the findings of Murray A. Straus, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire.

Spanking is most frequent in the sixth through eighth grades in Jacksonville. Those grades accounted for more than 2,000 of the 3,000 punishments reported to central administrators. By comparison, elementary school pupils received 612 punishments and high school students 305.

The punishment is one of many options principals have under the code of student conduct. An adult witness is required during the paddling, one who has been informed of the reason for the punishment beforehand in the presence of the child.

Elsewhere, some are pressing for the end of corporal punishment.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Education Association are among the groups opposed.

The racial disparity among those punished is among the reasons.

In Jacksonville, as in other school systems nationwide, black students were more likely to receive corporal punishment last year.

African-American students were 41 percent of the school population last year, but were 68 percent of the students who received corporal punishment.

White students, who were 53 percent of the school enrollment, were 30 percent of the students who received the punishment.

"I have always been bothered by that, and the disparity has existed for a long time," said School Board Chairwoman Gwen Gibson, who opposes corporal punishment.

In her seven years on the board, Gibson said, she could not recall members ever discussing whether to drop corporal punishment.

By School Board policy, parents can have their children exempted from corporal punishment. But few parents return the forms, and principals say many want school officials to continue paddling.

Some of these parents came through the Jacksonville school system when it was commonplace, or were spanked at home as children. They see its merit.

"I don't think a swat would hurt any kid. A swat, not a beating," said Kevin Scheer, whose son attends Mandarin Middle School. "It's a far cry from giving a kid a swat and beating them. There's no fine line."

Principals say when they call to report misbehavior and talk about options for discipline, parents often request a paddling.

"There are even times, when the very first time you call a parent, they'll say, 'Just give him a spanking,' " said Marilyn Myrick, principal of Lone Star Elementary School in Arlington.

Like many principals, Myrick is loath to use paddling. Twenty- three of her 862 students received corporal punishment last year. So far this year, Myrick said, she is aware of none.

"Spanking a child is something we use less and less often," Myrick said. "You spank a child when you've tried all other means and you want to see if spanking a child will make a difference."

Corporal punishment is not used more than twice on a child ather school, she said. If the student hasn't changed behavior by then, change is unlikely.

"Regretfully, some children have been punished in such a manner throughout their lives, they don't feel timeout and other means of discipline - they don't see that as punishment," Myrick said.

In addition to questioning its value, Myrick and other principals say they are leery of using the paddle because it is difficult to interpret how a parent may react.

Sometimes, the same parents who request principals to paddle a child will file a complaint once the technique is used. Jacksonville police could not provide statistics about how many complaints of excessive force were filed last year.

Diane Peterson, whose grandson attends Ed White High School, wishes the school system would drop the idea. Her son was paddled as a high school student in the early 1970s. As a sophomore, he was caught smoking a cigarette in the bathroom.

"It did not affect him in a positive way," Peterson said. "Whenyou physically paddle someone, the indignity of it really affects your attitude about your school."

The United States, South Africa, Canada and Australia are theonly industrialized nations that allow school spankings, according to the National Coalition to Abolish CorporalPunishment in Schools.

Florida is among 23 states that allow the practice. Among the states that have dropped it, there is no groundswell to bring it back, said Nadine Block, director of the coalition.

"It doesn't really work," Block said. "It may be teaching kidsthat it's OK to beat people up to control them."

In Florida, other large school systems have phased out paddling.Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando are among those that have dropped the paddle.

Hodge, the principal at Paxon Middle, said she has found through a 10-year career as an administrator that othertechniques are more effective.

One method she has used forces a student to be trailed by a parent for a day.

It works on two levels. "That child understands 'I do not want my parent here with me all day long,' " Hodge said. "And that parent now has been inconvenienced. That parent will then bear down on that child."

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