MERIDIAN, Miss. -- The debate over whether corporal punishment has a place in American education became very personal for Ralph McLaney when the principal of Carver Middle School ordered him to paddle a sixth-grade student who had acted up in class.
Ralph McLaney refused to paddle students as assistant principal of Carver Middle School in Meridian, Miss.
Photo: Michael Dobbs -- The Washington Post
"The idea of a big white guy hitting an 80-pound black girl because she talked back to the teacher did not sit well with me," said McLaney, who resigned his assistant principal's post soon after the school year began rather than carry out his superior's instructions. "I decided I did not get my master's degree in education to spend my time paddling students."
A decision last month by the Canadian Supreme Court to outlaw the use of the strap by teachers has left the United States and a lone state in Australia as the only parts of the industrialized world to allow corporal punishment in schools, according to anti-paddling activists. While 28 U.S. states have outlawed paddling over the past three decades, the practice remains commonplace across much of the Bible Belt.
Here in the nation's top paddling state, nearly 10 percent of students are paddled every year, according to statistics collected by the federal Department of Education. In poorer parts of the state, where a higher proportion of children are from minority and single-parent families, the use of corporal punishment is even more frequent.
"The point is to get the students' attention, not to inflict pain," said Carver Middle School principal Earnest Ward. "Sometimes all you have to do is hold a paddle up, and it will scare a student to death. Others are not afraid of it at all."
Although child psychologists say corporal punishment risks reinforcing negative behavior, many Meridian teachers and parents consider it an effective form of discipline, particularly at the elementary and middle school level. They maintain that three quick licks (the maximum permitted by the school board) with an officially approved, quarter-inch-thick wooden paddle is often preferable to keeping children out of class and putting them even further behind in their studies.
And then there is the religious argument.
"Are we going to believe man's report or God's report?" asked Cherry Moore, a special education teacher at Carver and co-pastor of a local church. She believes that Old Testament references to "spoiling the child by sparing the rod" should outweigh the allegedly negative effects of corporal punishment cited by child development experts.
The debate over corporal punishment at Carver Middle School, provoked by one administrator's crisis of conscience, reflects a much broader divide running through American education. Studies have shown that there is a high correlation between paddling and poverty, and corporal punishment is more common in rural areas than in urban areas. The practice has been banned for more than a decade in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
Opponents of paddling argue that corporal punishment merely perpetuates a cycle of poverty and violence. Supporters contend that paddling undergirds orderly and disciplined schools, which represent a child's best hope for social and academic advancement.
Although McLaney had taught in other Mississippi schools, mainly in the metropolitan Jackson area, he concedes that he felt out of place at Carver. The school draws most of its students from nearby housing projects. More than 90 percent of them are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, a common measure of poverty. Three-quarters of the children come from broken homes.
"In other Mississippi schools where I have worked, the paddle was a dusty relic," he said. "It was put on the shelf and used when the football player didn't want to miss the big game."
When McLaney was appointed assistant principal of Carver Middle School last summer, he agreed to enforce the school board's code of discipline, which includes paddling. At the time, he said, he did not realize he would be expected to paddle as many as 10 to 15 students a day. When he sought to use other methods of disciplining students, such as detention, his colleagues complained that he was shirking his duties.
According to written notes kept by McLaney, he received repeated admonishments from Ward, the principal, including comments such as, "These kids are different, all they understand is the paddle," and "walk the halls and, if the kids are out of line, burn their butts." McLaney says he resigned as assistant principal on Sept. 30 when it became clear to him that the alternative was to be fired for insubordination.
Ward refuses to discuss his conversations with McLaney and describes the resignation as a private personnel matter. He points out that corporal punishment at Carver is carried out in strict accordance with policies laid down by the school's board of trustees. The punishment must be carried out by an administrator, in his office, in the presence of a witness, and advance parental consent is required.
Typically, paddlings are administered for fairly minor offenses such as disrespect to a teacher, disturbing the class, profanity or tardiness. More serious infractions, such as fighting with other students, are punished by suspension.
According to federal statistics, the use of corporal punishment has been in sharp decline since the early 1970s, when states began to outlaw the practice. In 2000, the most recent year for which figures are available from the Department of Education, 342,038 public school students were paddled, down from 1.5 million in 1976. The figures do not include paddlings in private and religious schools.
"Under U.S. law, children are the only class of individuals who can be legally hit," said Nadine Block of the Center for Effective Discipline, a leading anti-paddling group. "Children have less legal protection than someone who is in jail or in the army."
In some states, such as Pennsylvania and Wyoming, corporal punishment of students remains legal, though the institution has all but died out. The top paddling states after Mississippi are Arkansas (9.1 percent of students paddled in 2000), Alabama (5.4 percent) and Tennessee (4.2 percent.) According to Block, black students are paddled more than twice as often as other students, proportionate to the overall population.
Corporal punishment in schools is illegal in most of the rest of the world and has been banned in most of Europe for several decades. In the past few years, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Pakistan have all outlawed the practice. The Canadian Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 30 that teachers could use "physical force" to restrain fighting students, but were not permitted to use disciplinary instruments such as a paddle or strap.
In its most recent ruling on paddling, the U.S. Supreme Court said in 1977 that the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, applied to convicted criminals but not to students. It also ruled that teachers could punish children without parental permission.
Most school districts that allow paddling now stipulate that it must be done with the permission of parents, a requirement that has sharply reduced the number of legal complaints. There are, however, school districts in Texas where parental permission is still not necessary.
Jean Merrill, who lives in the northern Texas town of City View, said she withdrew her 15-year-old daughter from the local secondary school after she was paddled by the principal for wearing a T-shirt that slightly exposed her midriff.
"I told the principal they were not to touch my child without calling me," she said. "When he still refused to call, I pulled her out of there." School Superintendent Michael Smith said paddling is legal in Texas, and no notification is required.
Like other Meridian schools, Carver Middle School sends parents a note at the beginning of every school year, outlining its corporal punishment policy. According to Ward, about 80 percent check the box on Form 053-7198, which states: "I do want corporal punishment administered according to district policy if my child's behavior indicates such a need."
"When my son got spanked, he didn't act up anymore," said Patricia Moody, a Carver parent and security guard in a local hospital, who had come to the school to retrieve her daughter after a classroom brawl. "Three licks on the butt, and they get more control."
McLaney, who came to teaching from a civilian job in the Navy, was loath to give up his assistant principal's post, which paid $53,000, "good money for Mississippi," he said. When he asked the state attorney general's office whether he could refuse to paddle a student on grounds of conscience, he was told that there were no grounds for refusing "a valid, legal order" from his supervisor. A lawyer hired to represent him by the teacher's union gave him similar advice.
"In the end, I resigned because they made it very clear they were going to fire me otherwise," said McLaney, who is still looking for another education job.
Contact Ralph McLaney at firstname.lastname@example.org
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