The alleged abuse and misuse of corporal punishment was a hot topic at Monday's DeSoto County Board of Education meeting in Hernando, attracting local parents and anti-spanking advocates from several states.
"Corporal punishment in schools is illegal in 28 states," said Tom Johnson of Nashville, representing Tennesseeans for Non-Violent School Discipline. "It's hard to understand why teachers can get away with something like this when a parent who tried this would have the police and DHS (Department of Human Services) all over them."
The latest controversy stems from a Jan. 20 incident at Olive Branch Middle School, in which 10 students were paddled by a coach. Bruising, some lasting as much as a week, has been reported by several of the students.
"DeSoto County recognizes corporal punishment as a method that may be used in controlling student behavior," DeSoto County Superintendent of Education Milton Kuykendall said in a prepared statement. "Students are advised of behavior patterns that might lead to corporal punishment.
"Corporal punishment must always be administered by a certified staff member and there must be a certified witness before the punishment is administered," the superintendent continued. "Even though parental permission is not required, corporal punishment may be prohibited for individual students as requested by parents."
The DeSoto County Schools Code of Discipline, issued in August 1988, divides inappropriate behavior into five categories. Acts of misconduct range from tardiness (Level I) and skipping class (Level II) to aggravated assault (Level IV) and possession/use of a weapon (Level V).
Violations of Levels I, II and III carry disciplinary action including conferences, suspension or corporal punishment. Level IV mandates assignment to the DeSoto County Alternative Center or expulsion, with Level V calling for DCAC assignment or expulsion for not less than one year.
"Parents always have the option to not have their child participate in corporal punishment by requesting this in writing," said Assistant Superintendent Charlie Alexander.
"It is a very flexible plan that gives parents and students this option. It has been very effective for our district."
Sam and Helen Martin, parents of one of the OBMS students spanked by the unidentified coach, appeared at Monday's board meeting to express their concern and anger regarding the district's corporal punishment policy.
"This is unacceptable," Sam Martin said. "If I had done this to my child I would be locked up."
Echoing her husband's feelings, Helen Martin said she was prepared to hire an attorney and sue the district and the board over the incident.
"Y'all are not getting away with doing this to my child," she stated. "Because this is a teacher, it's supposed to be okay? I don't think so."
District spokesperson Riki Jackson said the concerns expressed at Monday's meeting prompted board members to establish an advisory committee comprised of Alexander; board member Susan Johnson; principals from elementary, middle and high schools; parents and teachers.
"The committee will review our existing corporal punishment policy," Jackson said. "We want people to know that action is being taken and we are listening to feedback from the public."
Jackson said an internal investigation into the Jan. 20 incident was conducted. Students were warned several times about being insubordinate before the paddlings occurred, she said.
According to information compiled by the Center for Effective Discipline in Columbus, Ohio, the DeSoto County School District boasted an enrollment of 22,045 in 2002, the latest figures available in the study. Of that total, 2,010 students received corporal punishment while 975 were given out-of-school suspensions and 155 total suspensions.
Of the 21 states that still allow corporal punishment, Mississippi ranks No. 1 among the 10 worst states by percentage of students struck by educators in the 2002-03 school year. According to the report, compiled by the United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, 9.1 percent of Mississippi students were paddled during the reporting period.
Arkansas ranked second at 7.6 percent, followed by Alabama (5.2) and Tennessee (4.3). Teachers in Texas account for 19 percent of all school paddlings nationwide.
The fact that Southern states rank highest in corporal punishment wasn't lost on Peggy Dean, a registered nurse who flew to DeSoto County from Charlotte, North Carolina. Dean represents Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education, a group formed to promote the banning of corporal punishment.
"It is barbaric, it is archaic and it has its roots in slavery," she told the board. "It has no place in the school.
"The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world which allows paddling," she added. "We can no longer hit our spouses or our pets, but we can hit our children."
According to Johnson, who drove from Nashville to address the board, paddling is an out-growth of Southern slavery.
"The paddle was invented as a tool for beating slaves," he said. "This could explain why paddling is particularly common in the South."
Jamie Mercer can be reached at (662) 895-6220, by fax at (662) 895-4377 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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