A cruel, unusual practice

A cruel, unusual practice

March 10th, 2011 in Opinion Times

Rainsville, a town of about 5,000 residents in nearby DeKalb County in northeast Alabama - an area called "the Crossroads of Sand Mountain" - rarely wins national attention. Generally, when small communities do receive such recognition, it is a reason to celebrate. It's doubtful, though, that Rainsville residents are altogether happy with their appearance on ABC's nightly news broadcast on Tuesday in a story about corporal punishment of school kids.

Though corporal punishment is used more sparingly that it was a decade ago, it still is used in many school districts. Indeed, paddling, the most often cited form of corporal punishment, is legal in 20 states, including Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia, though it is used far more often in some states than others. Texas and Mississippi accounted for about 40 percent of the students paddled in the last reporting period. They were followed, in order, by Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Florida and Missouri.

Once relatively common here, the use of corporal punishment in Hamilton County Schools is now exceedingly rare. Though school officials discourage its use, current regulations do not prohibit the practice. Carefully written rules that govern its use, though, are so strict that paddling, thank goodness, has become almost extinct. That, apparently, is not the case in Rainsville - or in many other school districts around the country.

The national news network could have traveled to other sites for its report, but it chose Rainsville. What occurred there earlier this school year apparently mirrors what occurs in other states. In the instance recounted on the broadcast, a 13-year-old boy, by all accounts an honor student, was struck once with a paddle after he failed a science test - not for a breach of discipline.

The youngster recalled that his teacher said, "Well, my daddy beat me, and I beat my children, and that's what I'm about to do to y'all." The blow was powerful enough to raise a significant bruise on the boy's backside. The boy's mother was outraged. She visited the school principal, talked to the police and went to the district attorney's office seeking redress for what she viewed as abuse or an assault on her child. She got sympathy, but no help.

The district attorney's office said nothing could be done because the paddling was administered by a teacher. It is, it seems, legal for a teacher to hit a child in Alabama and, presumably, in the other states that allow corporal punishment.

Parents and others who raise and protect children can sympathize with the mother's viewpoint. "You can't even hit a dog, you can't hit a prisoner, but you can hit my child because he made a bad grade?" Her protests did accomplish something. The school reports that it has ended the practice of paddling because of what happened to the student profiled in the ABC news report - not, apparently, because the practice is wrong or counterproductive.

Research does show, though, that corporal punishment - touted as an effective tool in maintaining discipline in the education setting - is not as effective as its proponents claim. Studies show that physical discipline is ineffective, and that those who suffer it are more likely to engage in aggressive behavior, become depressed and to lose respect for authority. Moreover, the states in which corporal punishment is banned do not have greater discipline problems than states where it is accepted.

In addition, corporal punishment is employed unfairly and inappropriately. For example, black and Native American kids, even in schools and districts where they are a majority, are twice as likely to be paddled than a white child. Similarly, kids with mental or physical disabilities also are more likely to be subjected to corporal punishment. That's prejudice of the sort that has no place in schools or any other public institution.

Corporal punishment is dangerous and arbitrary. About 10 percent of the about 200,000 students subjected to it last year ended up seeking medical treatment. Clearly, the practice is cruel, and in this day and age it is increasingly unusual. That's a combination that makes corporal punishment a practice banned by the U.S. Constitution. Legislators and educators should act promptly to end its use - in Rainsville and elsewhere in Alabama and in each of the other 19 states where it is currently practiced.