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The Nation, 1 November 1975
The Updated Hickory Stick
By George Merlis
The hickory stick, long the feared symbol of American classroom discipline, is gone. So is the birch rod. Today's schoolteachers have other methods of maintaining order and enforcing diligence: electric cattle prods, copper-edged rulers, heavy leather belts and -- most commonly -- wooden paddles.
Corporal punishment, outlawed in the military, no longer officially sanctioned in prisons, thrives in America's classrooms. Many educators take to heart the injunction of the Proverbs: "He that spareth his rod hateth his son, but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes." They cast themselves as the chastising father and their pupils as the miscreant sons -- and daughters.
A junior high-school teacher in Independence, Mo., substituted a rowboat oar for a rod. A South Carolina teacher used a cattle prod. Teachers in Port Huron, Mich., are proscribed from striking their students with anything more punishing than an open hand, but in another Michigan district, newly hired teachers are handed a wooden paddle when they sign their employment contracts. In West Virginia, students in shop class make the paddles which will be used on them in other classes.
And in Dallas, Texas, the school district keeps meticulous records on corporal punishment, records they are not loath to reveal to any inquirer. According to Nolan Estes, a Dallas assistant school superintendent, there were 10,225 instances of corporal punishment in the city's classrooms in the 1973-74 school year. (The 1974-75 statistics had not been compiled in mid-September.) "That's not 10,000 students paddled," Estes explained; "some of them were repeaters."
Indeed, probably many were repeaters, for a 1972 study of corporal punishment conducted by the National Education Association concluded, "Physical punishment is an ineffective way to maintain order; it usually has to be repeated over and over."
The 10,000-plus swattings recorded by Dallas in 1973-74 were a drastic decrease from the 26,000-plus pupil beatings of the 1972-73 school year. The decline occurred because the school system began enforcing its rule that teachers need prior, written parental consent before paddling a student. School administrators, on the other hand, are still authorized to strike students without parental consent. Today, a Dallas teacher who feels a beating is called for must bring the student before a board that includes a school nurse and a school psychologist. And the board, after hearing all sides, decides whether to seek parental consent. Or, the teacher may refer the case to the principal who can, in Estes's phrase, "handle it in their own way." Estes adds: "The students must be given the opportunity to state their side. The administrator must advise students of their rights. It's just like an arrest." If it is easy for some school administrators to equate student misbehavior with crimes -- crimes no longer subject to corporal penalties in the criminal justice system -- what about those who suffer spankings and paddlings for deficiencies in their school work? Certainly no one could confuse honest mistakes -- or even laziness -- with misdemeanors, much less with felonies. Yet in school districts across the country teachers spank, paddle and manhandle students for spelling errors, arithmetic mistakes and sloppy homework, as well as for unruly behavior.
Thirteen states explicitly permit the corporal punishment of students. Three states -- New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts -- ban it. Most states have no laws on the subject, so children can be whacked about unless a local district forbids it. Some major cities -- New York, Philadelphia, Chicago -- have done so.
In September, California passed a law requiring written parental consent. The law's sponsor, Assemblywoman Leona Egeland, said, "I have never seen a good teacher who has to stoop to corporal punishment to modify behavior." Yet, it wasn't banned, merely restricted. In Oregon, a bastion of progressive legislation, an attempt last year to ban corporal punishment in the schools was narrowly defeated in the state legislature after intensive, last-minute lobbying by pro-paddling teachers who feared they would be unable to control their classes without the threat of physical force.
Too often, that threat must be exercised. Ric MacDowell, a teacher who had used paddles on his students although he does not approve of the practice, put it this way: "If it's legal, and if the students are used to corporal punishment, then that is what they respect. You can ask the class to be quiet, but they know you're not really serious until you get out the paddle and paddle somebody."
MacDowell, who has taught in Illinois and West Virginia, and who says paddling was commonplace in both states, refutes the contention that most corporal punishment is administered with a cool head and a judicious arm. Most paddlings, he said, were done in anger. He characterized them as "irrational actions." His goal, he said, was to have students think, and paddling "doesn't help the thought process at all."
But Larry Wilkerson, a West Virginia county school superintendent, thinks corporal punishment can help to stimulate the mind. He feels it is effective if the paddling teacher thinks "only of the best interests of the student ... and hopefully tries to give him something to think about."
What the student might think about, some feel, is vengeance. Bob Myers, a probation and parole officer in Missouri, wrote, "The seeds of corporal punishment can only produce an ugly harvest of violence." Not only can paddling make a student resentful; Myers feels it can also teach him that physical force is an acceptable was to solve problems. That view was echoed in the National Education Association's study: "Physical punishment develops aggressive hostility [and] ... teaches that might is right." Until this week the Supreme Court declined to rule on corporal punishment in the schools, skirting the broad constitutional issues (cruel and unusual punishment, denial of due process, invasion of privacy, etc.). But on October 20 the Court let stand a lower court ruling affirming the right of a North Carolina teacher to paddle a student for misbehaving. That ruling -- which now has the force of a Supreme Court assent -- said a student must be warned before being spanked and that only a "reasonable" level of corporal punishment was permissible. The Court did not define "reasonable." The lower court affirmed the right of a teacher to spank even against the wishes of a parent. In jurisdictions where corporal punishment is restricted or outlawed the existing laws stand.
The Court's decision, foes of corporal punishment feel, will make it harder to get anti-paddling legislation passed elsewhere. Presumably the Supreme Court agrees with educators who hold with Menander, "The man who has never been flogged has never been taught." The fact that those words were written more than 300 years before the birth of Christ doesn't seem to render them obsolete to pro-paddling educators.
One school official said he knew paddling worked because some of his victims "have in later years thanked me for straightening them out." And H.S. Griffin, Dallas deputy superintendent, advised teachers that "corporal punishment is not good at all unless it is administered with skill and in a spirit of friendliness and helpfulness to a child."
But paddling's opponents -- and they include the NEA, ACLU and the American Psychological Association -- believe the most friendly, helpful and educational thing that can be done about scholastic corporal punishment is to make it ancient history.
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