Spare the rod, spoil the student? 19 states still allow paddling at school, Tennessee is among them

Spare the rod, spoil the student? 19 states still allow paddling at school, Tennessee is among them

October 20th, 2013 by Kevin Hardy in Local Regional News

POLL: Should educators be allowed to paddle students?

WHAT ABOUT SPANKING?

Americans still largely favor parental spanking as a means of discipline. In an August national poll, 81 percent of respondents said spanking is sometimes appropriate, according to Harris Interactive. That figure was down from 87 percent in 1995, the last time Harris asked the question. Among parents, two-thirds say they have spanked their child or children, down from 80 percent in 1995.

Source: Harris Interactive

ON THE BOOKS

Here is Tennessee's law on corporal punishment:

Any teacher or school principal may use corporal punishment in a reasonable manner against any pupil for good cause in order to maintain discipline and order within the public schools.

Source: Tennessee Code Annotated 49-49-6-4103

Photo by Laura McNutt/Times Free Press.

It's your classic good cop, bad cop routine.

When a child is paddled for breaking the rules at Orchard Knob Middle School, one administrator takes charge and delivers the licks. Another stands by ready to scoop up the child and build him back up. They say how they are disappointed, how they paddle because they care and how they want to see the child get back on the right track.

The routine is prescribed, almost militaristic. The child bends forward, placing his hands on a table, his rear stuck out. Parents are notified, and there are always several witnesses. And no child goes back to class until he's had a trip to the restroom and the tears are wiped away.

It might be easy to assume that paddling in school went away years ago, even decades. Polls and anecdotal evidence show that fewer parents approve of corporal punishment today. And the anti-spanking movement has such power that some parents have been arrested for spanking their own children.

But paddling is alive and well in public schools, though its use has declined in recent times. Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama are among 19 states that still allow corporal punishment at school. And Hamilton County is the only one of the four largest school systems in Tennessee that uses it.

Orchard Knob Principal Crystal Sorrells has a simple reason for using the wooden paddle:

"It works," she said.

Not for all kids. Not for all situations. But Sorrells said paddling, unlike suspension, keeps kids in school, where teachers know they are safe and on task. And though by its nature paddling is punitive, Sorrells said the practice only works there because of the deep relationships administrators have worked to build with students. Often, kids become emotional while being paddled. But Sorrells said the feeling that they have disappointed school leaders is more painful than the licks.

"It's not about the paddling," she said. "It's about someone cares enough to take the time to give me the discipline I need -- that I should have gotten before I got here. ... And a lot of times we do have some pretty heavy conversations in the midst of that process."

The decline in corporal punishment is relatively recent. The Center for Effective Discipline reports that three states -- Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming -- still technically allow it, but effectively don't use it at all. Since the 2005-06 school year, Ohio, New Mexico and Pennsylvania have approved statewide bans on corporal punishment. And in 2011, North Carolina and Texas legislation allowed parents to opt out. From 1994 to 2004, the U.S Department of Education reported that the number of students across the country struck at school in the name of discipline declined from nearly half a million to fewer than 300,000, though some have questioned the validity of the reporting system.

Even where it is allowed, corporal punishment is often used sporadically or not at all, with decisions on if and when to paddle left up to individual school districts or principals. Because so much discretion is left to principals, it's unclear how many Hamilton County schools use it, though administrators say most schools here don't.

Superintendent Rick Smith said he would be fine with doing away with the practice locally.

Several Hamilton County principals were hesitant to discuss corporal punishment for this story. And while Orchard Knob is certainly not the only school in the county that paddles, its staff was forthcoming and open about the practice. It is part of the school's culture. Students there know it is a consequence. And parents are made well aware and are able to opt out.

But technically, schools don't have to give parents any choice.

In places where paddling is not banned, the law doesn't require schools to notify parents. But area school officials say they ask for parental permission or at least let them know when it happens. In fact, many say that paddling is used not necessarily because of their own ideology, but because parents demand it.

"Some parents will request it," said Sequatchie County Superintendent Johnny Cordell. "They'd rather you take action and put them back in the classroom, rather than them come down to the school and take up a lot of time."

School-based paddling has sparked lawsuits and public outcry across the country, with national advocates calling for an end to the practice amid concerns about lasting emotional problems stemming from physical punishment.

But corporal punishment is still permitted in every state in the South, where it is considered a necessary means of discipline. And parents who use spanking at home or who were spanked themselves see it as part of a child's overall character development.

"We're still in the Bible Belt area over here. There's a lot of 'spare the rod, spoil the child' types," Cordell said, referring to the Bible verse in the book of Proverbs that addresses corporal punishment. "They were disciplined that way in their home and when they were in school. They expect the same thing for their kids."

PADDLING PHILOSOPHIES

In Hamilton County, the use of paddling is up to individual principals, who generally have much autonomy over their own school buildings.

At Orchard Knob Elementary, Principal LaFrederick Thirkill said paddling is not his only means of maintaining order. Teachers and administrators use a multitiered system of discipline, and paddling is reserved for more serious offenses such as fighting, that would otherwise result in suspension.

"I wouldn't say that it happens often," Thirkill said. "I think just the fact that the kids know it's an option has been psychologically effective for some students."

But there could be unintended consequences from paddling, which has kept Jennifer Spates, principal at Brown International Academy, from incorporating it into her school's discipline policy. She has considered it and has even been asked by parents to paddle. But so far she hasn't. The school, mostly poor and black like the two Orchard Knob schools, uses a discipline system that focuses on positive behaviors, by acknowledging and rewarding kids who do right.

"I'm pretty open-minded about anything," Spates said. "When I think about my own children, I would not contest if corporal punishment was administered to them. Because I know for a fact that they live in a safe environment, they trust adults, they're not in any way emotionally wounded. But when you don't know that for sure, you could be creating a potential problem."

There are other questions, too. Because paddling doesn't come with a guidebook.

"Who's to say who's hitting too hard and who's not hitting hard enough?" said DuPont Elementary Principal Janice Scott, who has chosen not to paddle students. "We need to try a lot of other things before we do that."

Scott said she once paddled a child at another school, but only at a parent's behest. She gave the boy one swat and that was all it took.

"To be honest with you," Scott said, "he didn't give me or the teacher any trouble after that."

As Thirkill, Spates and Scott show, each school's approach to punishment can vary widely. And it can change as administrators come and go.

"I'm going to bet that which schools use paddling and which don't changes almost yearly," said school board attorney Scott Bennett. "Because each principal gets to make that determination."

But issues with corporal punishment don't come across his desk often. Bennett remembers only one lawsuit over the issue in the past 20 years or so, and that one was dismissed.

"It's either not used very much at all," he said, "or it's used in such a way that it's not that big of a deal."

PADDLING PUSHBACK

But there's no doubt paddling is controversial, nationally and at home.

A Birmingham-area mother gained widespread attention in September after circulating a petition to have school-based paddling banned. News spread earlier this year of a Henry County, Tenn., boy landing in the hospital after a school administrator's paddle left him bloodied and bruised, according to Nashville television station WSMV. And in 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch wrote a scathing report on the "degrading, ineffective disciplinary tactic" of paddling in schools.

Benjamin McGowan, a local attorney with a child in the public school system, questions Hamilton County's paddling practice and its policy of leaving those decisions up to individual schools, especially when so many other facets of school administration are heavily regulated.

"The whole idea of decentralizing it and sort of making it a fluke based on where you happen to live, what school you happen to be in and what grade level you are in, seems contrary to the idea of it being an effective deterrent," he said.

McGowan, who has represented clients with grievances against the school system, said the practice seems to open up the district to potential lawsuits from parents. And McGowan, originally from New York, said popular opinion or tradition is no excuse for continuing the use of corporal punishment.

"I think that when you're talking about something as serious as beating someone else's child, potentially over their own objection, it shouldn't much matter whether everybody in the community thinks that's OK," he said.

Victor Vieth, executive director of the National Child Protection Training Center, said researchers have concluded that physical punishment can lead to emotional problems later in life. But many people still view spanking or paddling as a good way to manage behavior, he said, despite evidence to the contrary.

"We're largely just wedded to it because it's our culture," Vieth said. "And it's easy."

But corporal punishment just isn't all that effective in getting children to mind, Vieth said.

"It will work in this sense: If you hit a child long enough and hard enough, they will eventually submit. But long term it's not going to be healthy for them," he said.

And being against corporal punishment isn't to say that children should be coddled or go unpunished, said Deborah Sendek, program director at the Center for Effective Discipline, a group affiliated with the child protection training center.

"We're saying children do need discipline," she said. "They need nurturing, they need guidance, they need teaching and they need discipline. But there are effective ways to teach children without hitting them."

KEEPING THEM IN SCHOOL

Teaching kids is easier when they are physically in school -- an oft-cited benefit of paddling versus suspension or expulsion.

Since Orchard Knob Middle instituted paddling last school year, student attendance has risen from 89 percent to 96 percent, the principal said.

That's why Donnella Colvin, who has two daughters at Orchard Knob, thinks paddling makes sense. She's a single mother working as a hairdresser, so leaving work to deal with her daughters' discipline problems can be a hardship. Parents are often given the choice between paddling and suspension -- three licks or three days out of school.

"If they're suspended, they're not getting education," Colvin said. "They're able to stay in school and get their education."

At Orchard Knob, paddling and suspension aren't handed down for minor disturbances like talking during class. And more serious offenses like bringing weapons or drugs to school result in automatic expulsions.

It's those in-between behaviors that cause constant distractions from learning -- like regularly talking back or repeated horseplay -- that can provoke a paddling.

Colvin appreciates that administrators call her and give her the option. She trusts the staff at Orchard Knob. And paddling just plain works, she said.

"It puts that thought in their mind," she said. "It makes them think twice."

She chose last school year to have her oldest daughter paddled several times for transgressions like talking back to teachers and fighting with other students, rather than be suspended.

But her daughter didn't like the paddle. So at the beginning of this school year, she told the principal that she'd had enough. She promised to watch her attitude. She pledged not to give administrators any reason to paddle her again.

And so far, she hasn't.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.