Mobile County educators paddled overwhelmingly more boys and more black children in 1999-2000 than any other students, figures released by the school system Wednesday showed.
In a school system that is 49.5 percent black, 70 percent of the 781 reported paddlings were administered to blacks and 83 percent were given to boys.
"What is it about black men that we think we need to control them with a paddle?" school board member Hazel
Fournier said after looking at the numbers during a special meeting of the board Wednesday.
Board members voted during the meeting on a revised Student Code of Conduct, which included a proposal to ban corporal punishment systemwide.
The vote on the proposal was split 2-2 along gender lines, with the men favoring paddling, and that lets stand the current policy allowing the practice in the state's largest school system.
But Fournier promised the vote won't be the end of the discussion.
Just before board members Lonnie Parsons and John Holland voted to keep corporal punishment, Parsons said that abolishing school spankings would be on par with "taking God out" of schools. "The Lord's been locked out of our schools, and now people want the paddle taken out," he said. "It'll be a sad day for our schools."
With the fifth board member, David Thomas, out of town, Fournier said she would demand that the issue be included on the agenda of every scheduled board meeting "until our fellow board members have done their homework ... until we use some common sense."
The next regular board meeting is scheduled for July 25.
She and board President Peggy Nikolakis voted along with the male board members to approve the rest of the Student Code of Conduct.
Fournier also asked for a report on the racial breakdown of the people who have administered the paddlings.
Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia have banned corporal punishment from being used in schools.
Though U.S. Department of Education figures show that about 1 percent of the public school population received paddlings in 1997-98, the same figures show the disciplinary procedure was used on 6.3 percent of Alabama's public school students -- the third highest rate in the country behind Mississippi and Arkansas.
And while black students make up 17 percent of the nation's public students, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights reports that they received 37 percent of the paddlings.
"That wasn't an issue with me," Parsons said when asked about the racial disparities in the spanking data.
Semmes Middle School, which lies in Parsons' northwestern district, had the most paddlings of any county school with 87. The school is 6.1 percent black and 93 percent white, but 19 percent of the paddlings were given to black students.
"Basically, we don't use corporal punishment unless we contact a parent and they would like us to try that," Semmes Principal Monte Tatum said. Tatum said he uses the punishment as a last resort and often gives parents a choice between paddling or suspending their children.
When asked about his thoughts on the racial disparities, Tatum said his experience is that black parents who live in the inner city tend to favor spanking as an effective form of discipline.
"The fact that parents use it does not endorse it -- that does not make it right," Harvard University professor and psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint said.
Going back to slavery, American society has long had an image of black males as being too aggressive, out of control and in need of reining in through whippings, Poussaint said, linking that mindset to the philosophy that drives racial profiling.
While spanking may be part of accepted disciplinary practices in some parts of black culture, Poussaint said, much of it likely stems from the fact that black parents for ages have had to quiet their children -- "make them meek" -- in order to keep them safe in a white society historically hostile to blacks.
Den A. Trumbull, a Montgomery pediatrician and advocate of spanking by parents, said Wednesday that he is more hesitant about corporal punishment when it comes to endorsing the practice in a school setting.
"There have been some abuses," Trumbull said. "When the school personnel doesn't have a nurturing relationship with a student, sometimes (paddling) can become an avenue of vengeance."
Mobile board member Thomas has said he would favor changing the system's policy to ensure it would be more fairly used, but he was not available for comment on the numbers released during the Wednesday board meeting.