Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pennsylvania, 26 December 1986
Spare the rod or not?
Educators line up on both sides of paddling debate
By Jim Gallagher
Post-Gazette Staff Writer
At Burgettstown Junior-Senior High School, sober-faced students would walk into the school office and say, "I want my swat."
A "swat" was a spanking with a paddle.
Misbehaving students at Burgettstown used to be given a choice of punishment for some offenses: stay after school or take a "swat".
Students often opted for the paddle rather than miss the after-school ball game. In years past, there would sometimes be enough glum-looking students to form a line in the principal's office, all waiting for their swats.
Constance Gottardi helped end the practice when she arrived this year as associate principal.
"I think that corporal punishment is degrading," she says. "I'd rather talk to students than hit them."
Burgettstown High has retired its paddle, switching sides in the decades-old debate over the question: To swat or not to swat? Is corporal punishment a way to teach discipline or a barbaric throwback to the days when adults settled problems with fists and clubs?
A sampling of southwest Pennsylvania school districts shows that the paddle battle has divided school administrators greatly.
In Pittsburgh, corporal punishment was banned in 1977 by edict of the school board. But at suburban West Mifflin Area Middle School, administrators have dished out 38 spankings since September.
Many other districts permit paddling but insist that it is rarely used.
At Burgettstown, the ban-the-paddle decision wasn't totally an act of kindness.
Students who took a paddling felt they were getting off easy, says Gottardi. "Kids would take their swats and the parent wouldn't even know."
Young miscreants now get no choice about after-school detention and suspensions.
Gottardi also makes sure parents are told when a child misbehaves. Students find such tattletaling more obnoxious than a whack on the hind quarters.
"Students say to me, 'Don't call my mother! Please! I'll do anything. She'll kill me'," says Gottardi. "I make them sit there while I call."
But at West Mifflin Middle School, Principal Bert Ogden believes that "one effective swat" can set a student back on the straight and narrow. "Most of the time, it solves the problem," he says.
Like others who favor paddling, Ogden says it's a last resort. When gentle persuasion fails and lighter punishments do no good, then out comes the paddle.
"It's rarely more than one swat," says Ogden. "Most of them ... go out and say to their friends that it's no fun getting paddled."
In Allentown last month, a teacher lined an entire seventh-grade class against the blackboard and paddled each student, according to the Morning Call. The mass spanking occurred after a book was stolen and no student would admit to the theft.
The Allentown School Board is now reviewing its corporal punishment policy.
If numbers tell the tale, then parents don't seem to mind corporal punishment. Few take advantage of a state law that allows parents to exempt their children from paddling.
Only two parents have forbidden paddling at West Mifflin School, which has 700 students. At Pleasant Hills Middle School, a dozen parents have forbidden paddling among 565 students.
Richard St Clair remembers only one parent complaints about spanking in his nine years as superintendent in the West Jefferson Hills School District. "It involved one of the kindest, most sensitive teachers we had," he said.
The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers union has tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Pittsburgh School Board to bring the paddle back to the city.
State law in Pennsylvania says teachers are allowed to use corporal punishment for offenses against the "good order" of the school. Parents may exempt their children from the paddle by sending a letter to the school district.
Beyond that sole restriction, the state leaves the regulation of corporal punishment up to local school boards. State law sets no limits on how many times a teacher can strike a child or with what he can strike him.
Many school boards that allow corporal punishment put strict limits on it. They often require adult witnesses and limit punishment to paddling. Several require that parents be told when a paddling is done.
Groups who deal with children and the law are divided over the paddle issue. It's opposed by the American Psychological Association, the American Bar Association and the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union. It's favored by the rival American Federation of Teachers, various school administrators groups and legions of local school boards.