The Huntsville Times, December 17, 2000

South stands alone and more than one of every 10 licks lands in Alabama.
CHALLEN STEPHENS, Times Staff Writer

It's no longer allowed in basic training. It's outlawed in mental hospitals and prisons. But if you attend school in Alabama, you'd better watch your backside.

That's because Alabama is one of 23 states that still allows school principals to use corporal punishment. Throughout all U.S. public schools, more than one of every 10 licks lands in Alabama.

During the 1998-99 school year, if you compare the number of paddlings to the number of students, Alabama whacked 6.3 percent of the student body. That's a batting average topped only by Mississippi and Arkansas.

But around here, you probably need not worry unless you're a boy and you attend Madison County Schools or one of a handful of holdover schools in Huntsville. Madison City Schools banned corporal punishment two years ago, 40 years after the British navy did.

During that same 1998-99 school year, Huntsville paddled 265 kids. Of those, 73 percent were black in a system that's only 41 percent black.

"I'm dumbfounded by the numbers we have," said interim Superintendent Mary Ruth Yates, "but that's nothing compared to the county."

That same school year, Madison County schools swatted 1,177 students. Out of those, 283 were in special education classes. The vast majority were boys.

"The parents know right up front that's a possibility," said county Superintendent Ray Swaim. "It should be used as a last resort. But it works when appropriately done."

Still, many principals refuse to risk it anymore, having seen bruised buttocks wind up on the nightly news or fueling lawsuits.

Across the country, corporal punishment is fading, losing ground over both legal and moral concerns. State school board member Mary Jane Caylor is now pushing to ban it throughout Alabama.

Alabama is one of only 23 states that still allows paddling of students Paddling Some cheer. They argue that in order to raise peaceful children, society should ban all forms of hitting. Others believe that spanking is a quick, effective form of discipline when dealt carefully and with love.

Check the statistics here: Parents and principals agree with the second argument, especially in the more rural areas around Huntsville.

"Sometimes," said Swaim, "we call parents at home and they tell us, 'Try that paddle.' "

South stands alone

In the 1980s, states began to ban paddling. In 1986 five had banned it. Now, 27 have outlawed it. Another dozen seldom use it, although corporal punishment remains on the books.

But that change has yet to come south. Most of the 23 states that still allow corporal punishment span from Texas to Florida.

Alabama law permits it. The State Department of Education allows local school boards to make the call.

For Dr. Henry Clark, it was a no-brainer. Clark's the superintendent in Madison, where kids at Bob Jones High used to choose between three licks or after-school detention. Boys often would take the licks.

But Clark said paddling isn't an effective deterrent, and that it opens the door for lawsuits. "I understand that there are some people that say you should never spank your child. But to say that anytime you spank your child is abuse, that is ludicrous." Shawn Fargerson, school board member What if a student gets paddled, goes home, gets paddled some more and shows up bruised? Who's to say how that rear end got black and blue?

In Huntsville, paddling without a witness just cost one principal, Ollie Jones, her job.

"At one time it was used very often at virtually all the school systems in the state," said Clark.

At one time, the coaches at the old Joe Bradley High School in Huntsville painted two palm-down prints on the coaches' desk. They'd call boys in whenever they were caught cutting up in the hall. Match palm to palm and lean and wait.

It all goes back to the Bible.

The Bible says . . .

Spare the rod, spoil the child. That's not the real Biblical verse.

"People often misquote that," said Shawn Fargerson, a member of the county school board. "But the emphasis there is not on abuse and beating the child, but on loving the child and training the child."

Read King Solomon's actual advice from Proverbs 13:24: "He that spareth his rod hateth his son; but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes."

Fargerson is not only a board member, but a father and associate pastor at Sherwood Baptist Church. He reads that line to say that corporal punishment can be effective at home, delivered with due explanations, without anger, with a hug afterward.

It should be used rarely in schools, he said. In fact, all the local Catholic schools have completely banned the practice. Other traditional Christian, private schools, such as Westminster Christian Academy and Madison Academy, still wield the paddle.

In the book of Proverbs, King Solomon goes on to refer to corporal punishment several more times, including: "The rod and reproof give wisdom; but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame."

The problem is that Solomon's own son, Rehoboam, grew into a widely hated ruler after Solomon's death. And the growing opponents of corporal punishment sometimes like to argue that Rehoboam's cruel streak was the result of all that unspared "rod."

"I understand that there are some people that say you should never spank your child," said Fargerson, "but to say that anytime you spank your child is abuse, that is ludicrous.

"I think God has given us some instructions in the Bible about how we ought to live our lives, and when we try to live our lives apart from those instructions we get into trouble."

Three licks

Here's how it works these days: The first-grader wouldn't sit still. Even at that age, he could sense the slipping control of the student teacher. He ran. He screamed. He poked and laughed. Time-out failed to slow him. Loss of recess didn't work either.

"He just wanted to entertain everyone," said principal Eleanor Smithers. "When you've tried everything else you can think of and it hasn't worked . . ."

Three licks. A wooden paddle, usually one made in woodshop. Every principal in Madison County Schools has one. At Lynn Fanning Elementary, Smithers rarely uses hers.

"When I'm at wit's end," she said. "I might paddle five children every two years."

At other schools, like Riverton Middle, the principal might paddle more than 100 kids each year.

These days there are a few basic requirements and little consistency between any two public schools.

Kids get paddled for anything from tardiness to talking back to fighting on the playground. Administrators wield the paddles. The target area is limited to the buttocks. There must be a certified teacher as a witness. Administrators usually, but not always, call the parents before or after the discipline.

When it comes to high school and middle school, students usually get to choose: take three licks or attend after-school detention, take three licks or finish a written assignment, etc. According to principals, boys will choose the licks.

Male administrators paddle older boys and women paddle older girls.

"It's a small, flat wooden board. It's about the size of a Ping Pong paddle," said principal Dan Evans at New Market School. "We use a bigger board for bigger children."

The smaller paddles startle elementary children with a crack of air. The heavier paddles don't bounce back like the lighter ones.

"The thing about corporal punishment," said Evans, "it's not done to inflict pain. It scares them more than anything."

Nail-biting and bed-wetting

That's still barbaric and that's still abuse, argues Dr. Robert Fathman.

"It's immediate and loud, but it's teaching the wrong lesson to children," he said. "It says if I disagree with your behavior, I have the right to be violent."

Fathman, of Dublin, Ohio, heads the National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment in Schools. A tough paddling can emotionally injure a child.

Fathman is a psychologist. He says that even without inflicting pain, paddling can create enough fear to cause bed-wetting, nail-biting and nightmares.

Plus, a paddling can always physically bruise a child.

"If those were kids being injured by an amusement park ride, the state would shut down that amusement park ride," he said.

The American Psychiatric Association agrees.

The National Education Association, the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse and the American Medical Association are just three more of the 40 national groups lined up to outlaw corporal punishment. Most of Europe has banned it in schools. So have Japan, China, South Africa and Russia.

A principal's office and the boxing ring are the only two public places in America where it's legally sanctioned to strike another person.

Bring in the parents

At Lakewood Elementary in Huntsville, Principal Norton Webb hung up his paddle 10 years ago. Last year, he decide to pull it back out.

But now when he reaches wit's end, he reaches for the phone.

"Hello, Mrs. Jones, you wouldn't believe the language your son just used. He repeated something Slim Shady says . . . " If such behavior happens and won't stop, he invites the parent to come to Lakewood and do the paddling themselves. Two accepted his invitation this year.

"I could do that," said Carolyn Hammonds, president of the Madison County Council of PTAs. "I know there are children that really act up. And I grew up in the old school. If someone acted up, it was OK.

"But that's a tough call. I think (paddling) might be better left home."

Elsewhere, some creative principals make the student call his or her parents to explain why he or she is about to be paddled. Many choose not to use it at all.

"We believe that discipline is taught," said Principal Helen Taylor at University Place Elementary. "We teach children to behave and get along in a peaceful way."

But many principals simply swat away, and send a note that may or may not make it home afterwards.

"However, we have to be very, very careful as far as the licks and making sure you're not too forceful," said principal Ann Savage at Ed White Middle. "That one kid can bruise easily so that the parent gets upset and files a lawsuit."

Ed White is one of 10 schools in Huntsville that still use corporal punishment. The Huntsville list includes McDonnell Elementary, Rolling Hills Elementary, Stone Middle, Chapman Middle and Lincoln Elementary. Butler is the only city high school where students can still choose corporal punishment over detention.

"I think corporal punishment has outlived its usefulness," said Yates, the interim superintendent.

David Blair, a city school board member, said Huntsville needs to consider banning the practice.

In Madison County Schools, the school board says it works.

Sexism? Racism?

Harvest School paddled 226 times during the 1998-99 school year. Back then it was a K-8 school. It had 580 kids. That meant as many as 39 percent of the students met Phillip Cunningham's paddle. And only four of those times did he paddle a girl.

"Probably 10 times as many boys needed it," said Rich McAdams, a county school board member. "We're wired different."

Cunningham has retired. But the new principal, Stephanie Burton, still paddles, although she said the need had faded without the middle school kids.

But gender differences remain at Harvest and every other county school. It's the same across the nation.

Compliance report

According to the 1998-99 compliance report of the U.S. Office for Civil Rights, boys accounted for 80 percent of paddlings.

Black children are also over-represented. Throughout the nation, black students are more than twice as likely to be spanked as white students.

In Huntsville, African-American boys took 66 percent of the paddlings. But those boys comprise only 20 percent of the total student body.

In Madison County Schools, whose student body is 13.4 percent African-American, black children accounted for 17.4 percent of the paddlings.

Look across the country. African-American students account for 17 percent of U.S. students, but 37 percent of U.S. paddlings. And that disparity grew wider in the 1990s.

African-American students are expelled and suspended at a more equitable rate than they are spanked.

"I think we've just got to come to our senses and stop this physical abuse," said Caylor, the state school board member who represents this area. "Are we so archaic in our thinking? Are we so barbaric that we can not understand the severity of this?

"I'm going to take this forward to the state board, even if I get accused of being on some kind of crusade."

At this point, if a parent objects to paddling, he or she can write a note to the school. Public school principals say they will honor requests to not paddle specific children.

And likewise, when they receive the request to "try the paddle," they often honor that, too.

"God says no discipline is pleasant when you receive it. But it's given in love to see change," said Robert Illman, the principal at Westminster Christian Academy. Paddling "is an appropriate and effective means in some cases. You don't want to carry an incomplete toolbag."

Return to Newsroom Index or to Table of Contents