National group seizes on racial disparity in punishment at Mobile schools
By Rebecca Catalanello, Staff Reporter
Mobile Register, July 21, 2001

A national anti-spanking group is calling for a civil rights audit of the Mobile County Public School System, because its educators for the past two years have paddled far more black children than white children.

"The Mobile school board and admin istration are doing nothing to correct this matter," wrote Bob Fathman, president of the National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment in Schools, in a letter faxed Friday to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

Fathman successfully petitioned the federal agency to intervene in an Ohio school system for the same reason and has been active as an anti-corporal punishment lobbyist since the 1980s.

In Mobile County, where black students comprise 49.5 percent of the public school population, black children received 70 percent of the 781 school spankings in 1999-2000 and 65 percent of the 1,054 paddlings in 2000-2001, figures released by the school system showed.

"I don't think we need people from Washington coming to Mobile and making decisions on what's wrong here," Mobile County school board member John Holland said about Fathman's audit request. Holland is one of two board members who voted this week to keep corporal punishment in the school system.

Superintendent Harold Dodge, school board President Peggy Nikolakis and board member Hazel Fournier last week called for an end to school spankings in the state's largest system, labeling it an outdated form of discipline that leaves the schools open to legal action.

A 2-2 tie vote this week let stand the policy allowing the paddlings. Board member David Thomas, who has said he favors keeping school spanking, has been out of town.

Fournier has asked the issue be put on the agenda again July 25 and every two weeks after that until board members agree to ban it.

"If all things are equal, then we shouldn't be afraid to be looked at, should we?" Fournier said, supporting the National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment in Schools' actions.

The coalition is an Ohio-based nonprofit group that pushes for states to disallow corporal punishment in schools on the premise that it is ineffective, often abusive and frequently administered without consistency.

Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia have banned school paddling. While Alabama allows the practice, it gives local districts the right to decide for themselves.

The Office for Civil Rights will have to determine whether there is cause to investigate the complaint, U.S. Department of Education spokesman Rodger Murphey said. If officials decide to look into practices at the 66,000-student school system, the Office for Civil Rights will request data from Mobile County and conduct an on-site evaluation to determine if the system is in compliance with laws forbidding discrimination.

The investigation could take up to 135 days, Murphey said. A school system found out of compliance usually works with the federal government to fix the situation, he said. Others are referred to the Department of Justice for enforcement.

Eighteen percent or 870 of the 4,897 complaints made last year to the Office for Civil Rights involved discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin. Of those, 596 stemmed from disciplinary actions taken by schools, Murphey said.

"If there's something wrong, I'd like it to be corrected," said Lonnie Parsons, who joined Holland in his opposition to doing away with school paddling.

Parsons said he does not believe the racial disparities indi cate anything inherently wrong with how Mobile educators are administering paddlings. He has said pulling the paddle out of schools is on par to "taking God out" of schools, saying that both help with discipline.

Dodge said he always encourages his principals to opt for another way of correcting student behavior. In fact, 64 of the county's 94 schools for which paddling numbers were reported chose not to administer the punishment at all in 1999-2000, while 70 schools said they didn't use it in 2000-2001.

"There are so many other ways to discipline kids," Nikolakis said. "We're treating the symptoms and not treating the root of the problem."

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