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School CP - January 1998

Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tennessee, 11 January 1998

City school board to discuss ban on paddling

By Lela Garlington

Should educators who believe in corporal punishment be forced to hang up their wooden paddles or leather straps? The Memphis Board of Education will debate the question tonight.

The argument about physical punishment in schools seems to be a permanent part of the American experience, and last month Lora Jobe, new president of the school board, proposed the ban that will be discussed when the board meets at 5:30 p.m. at the system office on Avery.

Jobe doesn't know if she has the five votes on the board necessary to change the policy, and she doesn't sound optimistic it will happen tonight. "Sometimes you have to talk about things. Hopefully, at some point, we will be able to get rid of it," she said.

Many educators insist that corporal punishment must be available in cases where other efforts at discipline fail. Others, who haven't whacked a child's behind or popped his open palms in years, if ever, say that other disciplinary measures work better.

The leaders of the teachers union don't want corporal punishment banned. The Memphis Education Association's board of directors voted last week to recommend leaving the policy as is.

MEA president Tom Marchand said, "We feel the issue should be left to each individual school community to decide." A ban on corporal punishment "would be taking away one more alternative without replacing it with something else."

City and county school corporal punishment policies don't specify what a principal can use or where on a student's body he can apply it. Any paddling, however, must be witnessed by an administrator, and it can't be inhumane or degrading.

Some principals have elected to use a leather strap on the open palms rather than a wooden paddle. When a child is paddled on the behind, principals say, one to three licks is common. When the punishment is administered on the hands, the most licks is about five. Generally, an assistant principal is the designated hitter.

Among 13 city schools randomly contacted last week, six used corporal punishment and seven didn't.

While disciplinary forms are filed at each of the city's 161 schools, the central office keeps no totals on how many children are being paddled each year.

Arthur Hull, Dr. Charlie Folsom and Tracy Norville are among the city principals who think the policy should remain as is.

Hull estimated he's given 25 paddlings this year to 15 students at A. B. Hill Elementary with a 15-inch leather strap that is about 1 inches wide.

"It's tough love," said Hull, because many of the children live in households without a father around.

"I don't know anybody who has been damaged psychologically because they've been paddled," he emphasized. But if the policy changes, Hull said in-school suspension would be his alternative. "It's just as effective to me or more because of the isolation. I certainly don't want them home watching (TV talk show host) Jerry Springer or all that other junk."

Folsom also uses a leather strap on his youngsters at Airways Middle School.

"We did a survey of our parents and the majority of our parents support corporal punishment," he said. "Some of our students will ask, 'Do y'all give licks? I know I won't be coming to the office.' It does serve as a deterrent for some children."

While acknowledging he doesn't paddle as much as he used to, Whitehaven High principal Norville broke his paddle on a student last year.

"They're designed to break. That way it does not hurt them, it just stings them real good," he said. He described his cherry wood paddle as being about 3/8-inch thick, 2 inches wide and 19 inches long.

So far, he hasn't spanked any students this year, but his assistant principal has paddled between 10 and 15 students. "As long as it's used with discretion, I think it's an effective means of altering behavior," Norville said.

Others, however, don't paddle and believe other methods achieve more success. That was the case for Michael Murphy, Jerry Marlin and Melanie Suriani. All three principals have given up the paddle.

Carver High's Marlin said he saw the futility in paddling in the early 1980s. Before he could even find out the names of two boys brought in for fighting and using racial slurs, both had bent over, waiting for their paddling.

Their actions caused Marlin to consider a far worse punishment: a tongue-lashing. Once he was through with them, Marlin said, "Those two boys wilted like a rose."

Marlin said he finds it ironic that the education system is the only one still using corporal punishment: "No one gets 40 lashes in prison or in the military. Corporations don't call workers in and ask them to bend over to be spanked. Churches used to whip people. They don't anymore."

Besides the liability, Marlin said, "We're using the very thing we don't want the children to use."

In her six years at Oakhaven, Suriani has never used corporal punishment. As an assistant principal at another school, she did for five years: "That was the expectation. I was whipping the same kids longer and harder to the point it had no effect."

At Oakhaven, an alternative classroom placement is working well and teaches the children how to maintain self-control.

Murphy paddled his last teenager in 1983.

"I'm definitely against it. I think violence usually breeds violence. We live in a different day and time. Plus, it doesn't work for a majority of the students," said Murphy, principal at Raleigh-Egypt High.

Twenty-three states, mostly in the South and Southwest, allow paddling. But according to Education Digest, even where it is allowed by state law, corporal punishment is banned in local school districts or rarely used.

Others suggest that if it's used at all, it should be an infrequent means of discipline. "It should be used sparingly," said Dr. Cynthia Gentry, principal of Havenview Middle.

"We're trying to appeal to the mind and not to the butt," said Gentry, laughing. The last time she paddled a student was two years ago and then only because the mother insisted.

Gentry said she uses such alternatives as after-school detention, time out, exclusion from school activities such as dances or basketball games, or having a child write about what he did, why he did it and how he could have handled it differently.

What she's found is that "a lot of the children want the paddling because they'll say 'I don't have to listen to her' or 'I don't have to deal with it (the incident that led to the discipline).'"

No child has ever been spanked or paddled at Double Tree Elementary. That's because it's a Montessori school which stresses respect for the child. "I feel like that's the responsibility of the parent and not necessarily ours," said Double Tree principal Charles Mercer.

While Mercer said not having corporal punishment "works for us," he was unwilling to support eliminating it from all the schools.

Kathy Hite, past president of the Craigmont High Parent Teacher Organization, favors leaving the policy as is. "I think we need to empower our teachers. I think if they need to threaten our children, they need to back it up."

Years ago, Hite said, the school secretary at Brownsville Road Elementary swatted her eldest son on the behind for going into the girls' bathroom. Her youngest son also was threatened with a spanking for screaming in the cafeteria. Both actions, she said, were appropriate.

At 285 pounds, the 6-foot-tall James MacFarlane, principal of Kingsbury Elementary, doesn't paddle. "If corporal punishment is so effective, then why do we continue to have disciplinary problems?" he asked.

Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tennessee, 12 January 1998

Paddles will stay in city schools

Board rejects corporal punishment ban

By Lela Garlington

The city school board voted Monday night to continue to allow school principals to paddle students.

The 6-3 vote rejected board president Lora Jobe's proposal to ban corporal punishment, which principals have as one method of maintaining discipline and control.

"This is the wrong issue to even talk about," said board member Hubon Sandridge, who voted no.

"Corporal punishment is not one of our problems - our problem is test scores," he said.

Also voting to keep the policy were Bill Todd, Sara Lewis, Jim Brown, TaJuan Stout Mitchell and Archie Willis III. Jobe, Carl Johnson and Barbara Prescott voted for the ban.

Todd, Lewis and Brown have all worked in the city school system. Brown, a retired teacher, said a paddle "is a symbol of authority and maybe a symbol of respect. Let's leave this decision-making policy with the schools."

Todd, who is the district's former athletic director, vowed he would never favor a ban. He even asked a school security employee to stand up as he recalled paddling the employee when he was a student and Todd was a coach.

If the board eliminated it, Todd said, "That would be like we're taking Matt Dillon's last bullet away and saying take care of Dodge."

Todd described ban advocates as "do-gooders. It's tough out there. Don't take that last threat away."

Others said they struggled with the issue. "I've wrestled with this issue," said Mitchell. "There is a place for corporal punishment. There is no place for abuse."

The board also voted 5-4 to reject Willis's motion to create a 15-member task force to study the issue more.

"If a principal had hit a dog with a . . . paddle until it broke, there would be moral outrage," Jobe said as she opened the issue up for discussion.

That was an allusion to a story Monday in The Commercial Appeal in which Whitehaven High School principal Tracy Norville recalled breaking a paddle on a student last year. The three-eighths-inch-thick cherry wood paddle was designed to break, he said.

In Memphis, principals use paddles on backsides and leather straps on open palms.

Corporal punishment has been outlawed in at least 27 states since 1974, when the American Psychological Association and several other national groups denounced paddling in schools. But it has remained an option for school principals in the remaining 23 states, including Tennessee.

Shelby County school rules say that someone - not the child's teacher - must be the designated hitter and a witness must be present.

Memphis schools generally leave paddling to the principal or assistant principal, although a teacher can be the paddler if an administrator watches.

Both policies say corporal punishment should be used only as a last resort.

Many educators around the country say paddling is being phased out because it's not an effective way to change students' behavior. The threat of litigation also has swayed other principals to spare the rod.

Board members, however, weren't swayed by seven Memphis residents who spoke on the issue of corporal punishment. Six supported abolishing corporal punishment. Tom Marchand, president of the Memphis Education Association, was the only speaker who supported allowing school communities to decide.

Parent and lawyer Carson Owen said he considered banning corporal punishment as taking another small step "on the long road up from barbarism. There are better ways to discipline our children. We teach them by the way we correct them."

If prisoners were paddled, Owen said the courts would quickly hold that such punishment was cruel and unusual.

Jonathan Cook, who is doing his University of Memphis master's thesis on corporal punishment, also spoke in favor of banning the practice. "As a future teacher, I refuse to work in a school where I will be forced to strike children," he said.

After Monday night's meeting Jobe said she was disappointed: "The eternal optimist in me was hoping for a miracle."

The resolution banning corporal punishment was Jobe's first in her newly elected role as school board president. When a single red rose was given to each of the nine board members as a gift by one elementary school for National School Board Appreciation Week, board member Todd gave his rose to Jobe.

"I want you to cherish this with your heart," Todd said as he passed the red rose down to her. "You're going to need it after tonight."

Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tennessee, 12 January 1998


Fair Debate

School board handles paddling issue well

WHATEVER IMPACT paddling has on Memphis schoolchildren, the city school board's handling of a proposal to ban the practice Monday demonstrated how such controversial public issues should be dealt with.

Board members gave the question fair and thorough discussion - considering all sides in a soundly argued debate that was generally free of bitterness, rancor and personal attack. Would that all public consideration here were as fairly conducted.

In the end a 6-3 vote left the school system's corporal punishment policy intact. The decision seemed to reflect the stronger arguments of the evening: that such punishment remains an effective alternative and that teachers and principles dealing with serious disciplinary problems should have the flexibility to use it.

Arguments that paddling is cruel and unnecessarily demeaning and that it has absolutely no place in a modern education system were unconvincing, especially to board members who themselves have served as teachers or administrators in the Memphis system.

"It's tough out there," said board member Bill Todd, a former city schools athletic director. "Don't take that last threat away."

Member Hubon Sandridge insisted that corporal punishment was not really a problem for the system. "Our problem is test scores," he said.

And another member, TaJuan Stout Mitchell, seemed to speak for many supporters of the present policy when she said: "There is a place for corporal punishment. There is no place for abuse."

Board and citizen backers of new board president Lora Jobe's proposal to ban paddling do seem to feel concern that such punishment can get out of hand. The same concern has been expressed during a nationwide debate on this subject. But there has simply been no persuasive evidence that corporal punishment has taken on aspects of brutality or cruelty in Memphis. If it had, the debate Monday surely would have reflected it, and the vote might well have gone the other way.

Jobe alluded to the fact that one principal recalled in an article in The Commercial Appeal Monday breaking a paddle on a student during punishment last year. The principal explained that the wooden paddle was designed to break as a precaution against serious injury. Others have attested to the same safeguard.

City and county school corporal punishment policies do not specify exactly how it must be applied, but do insist that it not be inhumane or degrading and that the procedure must be witnessed by an administrator.

Some city principals authorize that form of punishment, some don't. That seems to fit well with the overall decentralization of school authority officially sanctioned by the district and generally endorsed by the public. Some schools use paddling, some a strap applied to the palm, some both procedures.

Those favoring retention of the policy emphasize that it is considered a punishment of last resort, which it certainly should be.

Some principals prefer such alternatives as after-school detention, exclusion from school activities or requiring children to write about their misbehavior and explain how they could have handled themselves differently.

Such techniques can be useful in some situations. And opponents of paddling and similar physical punishment may feel that they made headway by explaining their position during the debate Monday, despite the outcome.

This issue undoubtedly will be revisited at some point. For now, however, the city school system seems to need the last-resort option of corporal punishment.

This is, alas, not yet an ideal world, and some youngsters in today's city schools -- and county schools for that matter -- may be beyond the line where subtler persuasion would be effective.

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