DELTA, Mo. — As he sits in his office at Delta High School, wearing blue jeans and a Nike T-shirt, Nate Crowden reaches to his left.
Atop a filing cabinet is a paddle, not unlike the one used at this rural, southeast Missouri school when Crowden was a student here in the 1970s. These days, Crowden is the principal.
“We don’t have any discipline problems here,” said Crowden, holding the narrow wooden paddle. “And one of the reasons we don’t is because we use this.”
Corporal punishment is alive and well in Missouri.
According to data released this month by the U.S. Department of Education, Missouri ranks 10th nationally in annual paddlings at elementary and secondary schools. Missouri and Kansas are among 22 states that allow corporal punishment, but schools in Kansas deliver far fewer swats than Missouri.
According to the federal data — projections based on samplings from 6,000 districts and 60,000 schools, including 178 districts in Missouri and 122 in Kansas — Kansas used corporal punishment on 46 students during the 2002-03 academic year. Missouri used it on 6,875.
“I do not want Missouri to be in the top 10 in this area,” said state Rep. Barbara Fraser, a St. Louis Democrat whose bill to abolish corporal punishment in Missouri has failed for several years. “The bottom line is that by using corporal punishment, we are saying to children that it’s OK to hit someone.” In the Kansas City area, no districts contacted by The Kansas City Star use corporal punishment and most prohibit it. Only a handful of area school districts permit corporal punishment, and administrators in those districts say the policy is outdated and not used.
“We do not use it, period,” said Jim Horton, superintendent of the Excelsior Springs School District. “I will look at that policy, and if we need to do some work on it, we will.”
That’s what the school board is doing in Liberty, where corporal punishment is permitted but not practiced. Superintendent Scott Taveau said the board is expected to ban corporal punishment at a December board meeting.
“Nothing good happens when spankings take place at school,” Taveau said.
According to the federal Education Department, about 1.4 million students were paddled in 1980. The numbers have plummeted since, dropping to 301,016 by the 2002-03 academic year. Nadine Block, a retired school psychologist, finds those numbers encouraging. “Paddling is a practice that encourages alienation,” said Block, now executive director of the Ohio-based Center for Effective Discipline, which lobbies against corporal punishment. “There’s no research to support its use.”
The numbers are going down in Missouri, too, where there are 524 public school districts with about 900,000 students.
Count Chris Belcher among the opponents of corporal punishment. One of the first things he noticed when he took over as Kearney School District superintendent in July was that board policy permitted corporal punishment. It wasn’t being practiced, but he initiated efforts to wipe it off the books.
“The decision to inflict pain on an individual to cause a change in behavior is not suited for a school,” Belcher said.
Another reason districts are reluctant to use the practice, school administrators said, is the fear of litigation.
“To get down to the nitty gritty of it, I think people are very cognizant of liability,” said Sandra Sloan, Odessa School District superintendent.
Odessa board policy permits corporal punishment, but school administrators said they choose other disciplinary measures.
Many national organizations — such as the National Parent Teacher Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association of School Psychologists and the American Medical Association — support abolition of corporal punishment in schools.
That’s a change that Fraser would welcome. She said her research shows that rural districts are more likely to practice corporal punishment than those in metropolitan areas. According to the Center for Family Policy and Research at the University of Missouri, approximately two-thirds of the school districts statewide — housing about one-third of the state’s public-school students — allow corporal punishment. Fraser is worried that corporal punishment is used in a discriminatory manner. For example: The Department of Education study shows that, in Missouri in 2002-03, corporal punishment was used on 5,565 boys compared with 1,310 girls. Nationwide, like in Missouri, about 80 percent of the paddlings were delivered to boys.
In recent years, Fraser’s bill to ban corporal punishment in Missouri public schools hasn’t even gotten out of committee.
“I truly wish the law would change,” she said. “I seriously doubt that it will.” Supporters
Tammy and Mike Bartels have one child who graduated from the Delta School District and two more in the pipeline.
Residents of nearby Whitewater, Mo. — which is about 20 miles west of Cape Girardeau — the Bartelses advocate corporal punishment and don’t mind it being used on one of their children at school. “If my child has been told to stop doing something and he continues to do it, I don’t have a problem with them spanking him,” Tammy Bartels said.
Advocates of corporal punishment say a swat is an effective disciplinary measure if used properly. “With some kids it’s effective, with some it’s not,” said Dave Davis, principal at Jasper Elementary in Jasper, Mo., about 130 miles south of Kansas City.
So far this year, Davis said, he’s paddled only two students.
“You don’t spank out of anger,” he said. “You make the kid understand that what they did was wrong before you administer it, and then you talk to them again after you administer it.”
Districts that allow corporal punishment typically have written policies for using it. A witness must be present; only the buttocks and not the head or face should be swatted; and there should be no chance of bodily injury.
Craig Burger, principal at Knob Noster Elementary School, said school officials in his district rarely administer swats. When they do, he said, they don’t aggressively hit students with the paddle. “You really don’t want to hurt the child,” he said.
But one southeast Missouri high school principal, who didn’t want to be named, said the swats need to be “hard enough to get your point across” and should be “at least a little painful.”
In a different southeast Missouri district, the parents of a student recently complained after their child was swatted twice on Nov. 11. The school board in the Scott City School District investigated the incident and ruled that the principal didn’t violate school policy.
Diann Bradshaw-Ulmer, superintendent of the Scott City School District, said corporal punishment is used only rarely. That one incident nothwithstanding, she said, corporal punishment “is what the community wants.”
Crowden, the Delta High School principal, said it’s simple embarrassment that makes paddling so effective. Sometimes, he’ll walk to the classroom of an unruly student and swat him or her right there out in the hallway. The other students aren’t watching, he said, “but they know what’s going on.” And then there are students who ask to be paddled, who would rather take a few swats on the rump than an in-school suspension.
“Ninety percent of the kids in this building will say, ‘Give me the swats, and it won’t happen again,’?” Crowden said.
“This works here. We’re going to stick with what works.”
According to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, Missouri ranks 10th nationally in annual paddlings among the 22 states that allow corporal punishment. The numbers are projections from the 2002-03 academic year based on samples taken from 6,000 districts and 60,000 schools nationwide. Here is how Missouri and Kansas compare with the top five:
1. Texas 57,817To reach Steve Rock, call (816) 234-4338 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org .
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