TALLAHASSEE -- Two-thirds of Florida school districts still spank students, although the latest state numbers show that suspensions are increasingly the preferred mode of discipline.
About 11,000 Florida students felt the paddle during the last school year, according to the Florida Department of Education, most of them in small, rural counties. Larger, urban counties are spanking fewer children, opting instead to send them home or sentence them to programs that include "in-school" suspension, where the students are segregated from their classmates.
In Hendry County, a district that ranks second in the state for spankings, veteran educator Rick Shearer said he might suspend more students if it weren't for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. After a few swats, children can return to class.
"We're under pressure for the kids to pass the FCAT and to do the best we can with these kids," said Shearer, principal of Westside Elementary School in Clewiston, south of Lake Okeechobee. "If they're not in school, it's hard."
Hendry County is one of 10 mostly tiny districts that in 2001-02 accounted for the majority of school spankings, about 6,500. Parts of the Panhandle, North Florida and Hendry saw a rise in corporal punishment, while much of the rest of the state saw a drop.
Many Florida school administrators haven't lifted a paddle in years, part of a national trend toward banning the controversial practice altogether.
Administrators at Narcoossee Community School in Osceola County don't spank, even if parents request it.
"I've had a parent pleading if you'll just do it [spank], he'll straighten up," said Principal Jim DiGiacomo, adding that in-school suspension works well to curb discipline problems for his students because they hate the isolation. "You can impose the consequences and you can control what's going on because they are with you."
Schools turned to corporal punishment 10,685 times in the 2001-02 academic year, state records show. That's a tremendous drop from the 124,295 paddlings issued in 1985-86.
The small, rural districts issued the most spankings. Florida's 10 smallest districts, with less than 1 percent of all students, accounted for 10 percent of spankings. In contrast, the 10 largest districts, with 63 percent of the state's total enrollment, accounted for 8 percent of spankings.
More than 240 spankings were reported in four Central Florida counties -- Orange, Osceola, Polk and Lake. However, Dianne Lovett, a district administrator in Orange, said the five incidents reported there appear to be clerical mistakes. Orange banned corporal punishment in 1993, Lovett said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, National Association of Elementary School Principals and other child-advocacy groups oppose corporal punishment, citing research through the years linking childhood paddlings to depression, delinquency and lower rates of college graduation.
A new study by a longtime family violence researcher suggests that spanked children don't read or do math as well as their peers.
'An extension of the parent'
Florida lawmakers let school districts decide what's best, however. About a third of the 67 counties have stopped the practice under pressure from parents and children's advocates, or because they feared lawsuits or complaints to police.
Mike Elmer, whose son, Nick, is a second-grader in DeLand, is glad Volusia County schools no longer paddle. Elmer doesn't spank his child.
"The way I look at it, the school is an extension of the parent and if the parent doesn't do it, why should the school?" Elmer said.
Volusia parent Cheryl Fitzpatrick disagrees. She thinks parents should be able to request spankings because the threat of being sent home may not carry much weight.
"I think you telling them 'You're going to get suspended' probably just makes them happy," she said.
In Polk County, where administrators paddle the most of any Central Florida school system, only some elementary schools still do it. Now, schools mostly suspend students, said Deputy Superintendent Rusty Payne.
"There's a lot of things we suspend for now that I probably would have given kids three licks for," said Payne, a former high school principal of 16 years.
In this regard, Polk is much like the rest of Florida. Suspensions reported statewide during the last school year totaled 480,655, more than double the 202,262 for 1985-86.
Educators concede that spanking is not always effective, but the same goes for suspensions. Instead of going home to study or contemplate poor behavior, many children end up playing video games and watching television.
In-school suspensions don't provide the same opportunities for classroom discussion and projects, which educators say are key to learning.
Citrus County officials, who rarely spanked children last year, sometimes rely on an alternative center as a way to discipline. Children who repeatedly misbehave or commit serious offenses are transferred to the Renaissance Center, where they can get more academic attention and counseling.
"The purpose of a discipline system is to change behaviors so learning takes place," said Renna Jablonskis, the Citrus schools' director of student services. "Spanking is quick to take effect but it doesn't have a long-term impact."
Small districts often don't have the cash to build and staff alternative centers, though. Neither can they always afford after-school detention programs and in-school suspension programs, administrators said.
Shearer's school in Hendry County was able to offer in-school suspension this year because one employee is used for several tasks, including making copies and monitoring students.
A new attitude
Florida is not the only state where paddling in school is out of favor. About 27 states have banned it outright, as have about 10 countries, including Germany, Sweden and Denmark.
Much of the change in attitude stems from research suggesting that paddling is particularly harmful to elementary-school children, who also are the most likely to be spanked. A new study contends that such punishment may be counterproductive for school officials trying to focus children on their studies.
Murray A. Straus, who co-directs the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, tested 622 children ages 5 and 6 across the country. Those who were spanked by parents scored lower on a standardized exam when tested again two years later, he said.
Straus speculates that learning slows because spankings can cause stress on children's developing brains. He hopes the American public, now obsessed with standardized test scores, takes his study seriously.
"People do say, 'I was spanked and I'm OK' and they're not lying," Straus said. "But it's like smokers saying, 'I smoked all my life and I don't have lung cancer.' It ignores the fact there are lots of people who do."
State Rep. Frank Attkisson, R-Kissimmee, argues that school boards should be able to choose for themselves how to handle behavior problems. One disruptive child, he said, can hinder an entire class's learning.
"We have to balance his [Straus'] concern with the overriding concern that every child gets a year's worth of education with a year's worth of dollars spent," said Attkisson, who said he was spanked at home and in junior high. He also spanked his three kids.
"You have to give tools to school boards and let them be the deciders of what's right for the students."
Prevention is key Irwin Hyman, a child-discipline expert who heads the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives in Philadelphia, said the answer to handling behavior problems lies in prevention.
Schools can use praise and rewards to encourage students to concentrate on assignments and behave well. They also can try to figure out why a child is acting out -- and help alleviate the problem.
"When you go to the doctor, they want to diagnose before they prescribe you anything," Hyman said. School districts that spank "are giving the medicine before diagnosing what the problem is."
Hendry County principal Shearer said some answers to school discipline problems may lie within families.
"The kids behave at school pretty much the way they've been allowed to behave at home," he said. "The bottom line is we have to have law and order in the school so teachers can teach and students can learn."
Denise-Marie Balona can be reached at email@example.com or 386-851-7923.
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