Floridians Don't Spare the Rod, But Some Now Say They Should
St Petersburg, Fla--On about 200,000 occasions this year, a Florida school official will hit a child--sometimes more than once--with a hand or a wooden paddle.
Many of the students will be paddled because they talked back to a teacher or fought with another student. Others will get the treatment because they refused to do class work or tried to cut classes.
In Florida--as elsewhere--the use of physical force to discipline or punish a student is perfectly legal under state law. In fact, Florida lawmakers believe so strongly in the practice of corporal punishment that they decided more than 20 years ago that local school districts should have no power to limit its use. Once a principal decides a student deserves a spanking in Florida, state law says that no one--including school-board members, the child's parents, or the school superintendent--has the power to keep the paddle from landing.
Currently, however, a task force created by the state legislature is studying corporal punishment to make sure that school officials are using it as the legislature intended. The group, whose members include school officials, may recommend modifying the state's policy on corporal punishment, but is not likely to urge that its use be abandoned. It is looking at questions such as why a relatively larger percentage of black students are paddled in Florida schools.
Regardless of their stance on the issue, most education officials--in Florida and elsewhere--agree that the questions posed by the use of corporal punishment are complex. Researchers who have studied the issue suggest that the use of paddling waxes and wanes with public sentiment and that there are regional variations in its use. Irwin Hyman, the director of the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives in the Schools, based at Temple University in Philadelphia, says that the South is something of a stronghold of corporal punishment.
Although banned in the Soviet Union, Japan, Israel, and most European nations, corporal punishment was legal last year in every state except Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maine, and New Jersey, according to national experts.
In 1981-82, according to the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights, corporal punishment was administered to an estimated 1.5 million students, or about one out of every 28 public school students.
The same year, according to statistics compiled by the Florida Department of Education, more than 184,000 Florida students--or about one out of eight--were paddled by school officials. Only Texas spanked more students, and only Tennessee paddled a greater percentage.
In colonial America, corporal punishment--which often took more violent forms than mere paddling--was a common method of maintaining order in schools. It was also widely used in the mid-19th century, according to periodicals of that time, and it occasionally resulted in deaths.
In recent years, several large school districts have moved to limit the use of corporal punishment, but few have given it up entirely; some have prohibited it, then later returned to the earlier policy of allowing it.
In Los Angeles, for example, the board of education voted in 1976 to eliminate corporal punishment. That decision was reversed four years later, when surveys showed that an overwhelming majority of the city's parent-teacher associations, teachers, and principals wanted to resume using corporal punishment.
The courts' attitude toward corporal punishment in the schools, however, has been relatively consistent. In response to several challenges brought over the past 25 years, most courts have upheld its use. In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court settled the question more definitively when it ruled on Ingraham v. Wright. In a 5-to-4 decision, the Court said that corporal punishment is not "cruel and unusual" as defined by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Court concluded that the "cruel and unusual punishment" clause cannot be applied to disciplinary action in the public schools in the same sense it is applied to institutions in the criminal-justice system.
Schools, wrote Justice Lewis Powell in the majority opinion, are essentially open institutions where students enjoy the support of family and friends; they are almost always accompanied by other students and teachers. In short, Justice Powell wrote, "the schoolchild has little need for the protection of the Eighth Amendment."
In Pinellas County, Fla., the nation's 24th-largest school district, more than 12,600 students found themselves on the receiving end of a paddle last year.
Of 24 deans, principals, and school administrators in the district who were asked for their views on the practice, more than three-fourths said they considered corporal punishment an important weapon in their ongoing battle to maintain classroom discipline. Several suggested that spanking a student and returning him to class is preferable to sending him home for a few days.
Jerry Castellanos, a member of the Pinellas County school board, argues that physical force is the only punishment that effectively prevents some students from misbehaving more. "It's unfortunate," he says, "but principals must have a form of punishment available to them that every student can clearly and directly understand."
Adds Carl Mostellar, a middle-school principal who ultimately was responsible for the administration of 987 paddlings last year: "Once you suspend a student, they get sent home, they lose academic credit, and most of the time nothing gets accomplished. Most parents would rather see their children get spanked."
Mr. Mostellar's defense of corporal punishment touches on one of the most common arguments cited by proponents--that when they use corporal punishment, school officials are acting in loco parentis, and hence have parents' permission to spank.
But Mr. Hyman says he does not agree with that argument, especially as it is applied in Florida. "In Florida, the law says that parents can't prevent their children from being hit," says Mr. Hyman. Hence, the teachers and principals who spank cannot accurately be described as acting "with the consent of those parents who object" to having their children paddled.
According to Scott Rose, the county's superintendent of schools, all principals are urged not to paddle children whose parents object. Several principals interviewed, however, conceded that they cannot always check with a parent before a paddling.
Mr. Rose notes, however, that no Pinellas county student has ever been injured during a paddling. "Certainly some of them have had their pride hurt, but we have guidelines strictly controlling how corporal punishment is to be handled," he says.
The guidelines, which are similar to those of other school districts in the country, permit only principals or their representatives to administer paddlings. Teachers may strike students only in self defense.
The paddle--the only instrument with which a spanking may be administered--must be made of wood, may not exceed two feet in length and one-half inch in thickness, and may be no fewer than four inches wide. The paddle may not have holes or sharp edges. The paddling must be administered in the presence of another adult, and should never be "degrading or unduly severe," according to the guidelines. It should be delivered against the students' buttocks, after all items have been removed from pockets, and students shall not be required to remove clothing.
Critics of corporal punishment, however, say that guidelines have not been adequate insurance against injuries. Mr. Hyman and others say that studies show corporal punishment has caused injuries to students--spinal problems and hearing loss, for example, as well as damage to the sciatic nerve and the central nervous system.
For some critics, however, the main reason for shunning corporal punishment is that it is not effective in modifying behavior. "Corporal punishment simply doesn't change negative behavior," contends Linda Raymond, the principal of the Safety Harbor Middle School in Pinellas County. Last year, only four of the school's 1,700 pupils were paddled, and then only after other punishments had failed.
"If one of the things you're trying to teach children is not to commit violence, it makes no sense to spank them," Ms. Raymond adds. "Positive reinforcement is always a more effective way of modifying behavior."
Other school officials suggest that corporal punishment may indeed be effective in some isolated circumstances, but they question its overall effectiveness.
Betsy Hamilton, a school-board member who worked as a volunteer in a middle school, argues that spanking seldom improved students' attitudes. "Many times, the reaction was extreme resentment," she says. "I don't think that's what the administrators were trying to achieve."
None of the school administrators interviewed could explain why a disproportionately high number of black students--in Pinellas county and in Florida as a whole--are paddled.
In 1981-82, punishment of black students accounted for 44 percent of the paddlings, although they represented about 18 percent of the student population. Blacks received about 37 percent of the paddlings statewide during that school year, although they constituted only 23.5 percent of the population.
The task force now studying corporal punishment will seek possible reasons for the apparent racial difference in the use of corporal punishment, according to Don Samuels, a member of the school board in Broward County who is on the task force.
In Pinellas County, administrators say they are convinced that the imbalance is not caused by overt racism. Mr. Rose says he thinks the difference can be traced to socioeconomic factors. Black students, he argues, are more likely to come from single-parent homes with low incomes. Their environment, he contends, tends to make them aggressive. And in school, aggressive behavior tends to get students in trouble.
Louis McCoy, a black principal of an elementary school, cites the lack of communication between school officials and black parents as another possible explanation.
Although he is not opposed to busing for desegregation, Mr. McCoy says that the separation of black students from their neighborhoods--and the resulting separation of black parents from their children's education--makes it harder for black parents to stay involved. That distance, he says, tends to reinforce children's negative attitudes toward school.
Corporal punishment might be less widely used in the schools if educators were more aware of the alternatives, argues Robert Blume, a professor of education at the University of Florida and president of the Association for Humanistic Education. The association, whose members include several hundred educators nationwide, has set as its goal the elimination of corporal punishment from classrooms by 1990.
Mr. Blume acknowledges that many parents--perhaps the majority--support the use of corporal punishment in the schools. But he says this is so because many do not realize there are alternatives.
"One of the major reasons cited for why schools aren't effective these days is the climate of fear that exists in so many of them," Mr. Blume says. "Our organization believes that corporal punishment only reinforces the idea that violence is acceptable."
Mr. Blume, like others, argues that educators should use a positive approach to discipline. For example, teachers can show students exactly how misbehavior hurts them. Once that is done, Mr. Blume says, the Continued on Page 13
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teacher should work out a contractual agreement with the student that rewards him or her for improved conduct.
Or the teacher might adopt a broader approach, and reward an entire class for good behavior. Students who misbehave would not share the reward, Mr. Blume explains.
Several schools in Pinellas county are using versions of the systems proposed by Mr. Blume. At Lealman Comprehensive Middle School, for example, where no pupils were spanked last year, Scott East, the principal, instituted a disciplinary system based on "positive behavior modification." It was designed for a student body that included many pupils who were placed there because they misbehaved frequently.
Basically, Mr. East says, the plan is based on the idea that even the worst pupils will accept responsibility for their behavior if the consequences are clearly outlined and the rewards left readily within their grasp.
Students who behave appropriately are rewarded with paper punches on a color-coded card. A given number of punches earns a token which may be exchanged for frisbees, games in the school's game room, or other rewards.
The system works for most students, Mr. East says. "I don't believe there's any such thing as a bad kid," he says.
"Some of them just need a little different approach."