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Singapore-Style Discipline

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Overlooked in the international brouhaha over the Singapore caning of the American teenager Michael Fay is the fact that corporal punishment continues as a disciplinary option in many American schools. True, no four-foot bamboo cane is used, but U.S. teachers can spank with an open hand or paddle with a specially made instrument, all within the law and in accordance with local school board policy. Although contemporary curriculum goes well beyond "reading,'riting, and 'rithmetic,'' the tune of the hickory stick can still be heard in American classrooms, because--as recent teacher surveys indicate--more than one-half of the teaching force still believes in such measures. So does a majority of U.S. parents.

We do not. As teachers and as lawyers, we object to the use of corporal punishment in any form in any school, public or private.

The arguments about corporal punishment are old and well rehearsed: Some see school as the last bastion of traditional society, where law and order and respect for authority must be taught; others see schools as a center for learning nonviolence and a haven from physical danger. Proponents claim that corporal punishment works to convey important social norms; opponents assert that it is at best ineffective, and at worst psychologically damaging. We know of no reputable group to endorse corporal punishment. The American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, the National PTA, and similar organizations uniformly oppose it.

Federal courts offer little protection in this area except in egregious cases, thanks to judicial precedent and the absence of any special federal statute. At the state level, roughly one-half of all states currently forbid corporal punishment. Numerous others, unable to decide on a statewide policy, have delegated authority directly to local districts, or even to individual principals and teachers. Some districts have dealt thoughtfully with this politically divisive issue; others merely specify the length, width, and thickness of the paddle to be used.

Many states have opted for a middle ground, permitting corporal punishment but insisting on various procedural safeguards, in order to protect children from abusive or unreasonable treatment. These safeguards include advance notice to students, a preliminary hearing for the offender, the presence of an impartial, same-gender witness, a follow-up report to the local or state board of education, confinement to spanking only (with the hand, no switches, belts, or paddles), on the buttocks only (not to the head, legs, or arms), a limit of three to five swats, and, generally, only after a showing that other disciplinary techniques have failed.

It is difficult to predict the national trend. Although in the past six years 14 states have enacted major anti-corporal-punishment legislation, two important counter-trends exist. Many states now have "justification of force'' statutes that permit teachers to use force under certain circumstances (that is, to break up fights or to disarm students) and others have reaffirmed the in loco parentis concept, giving school personnel the same right to punish children that would be accorded the absent parents.

We believe corporal punishment is educationally unsound and fundamentally wrong: It ought to be universally outlawed. Where state legislatures fail to act, school districts should adopt their own anti-corporal-punishment policies. And for those teachers and administrators who continue to beat children in defiance of school policy, the penalties should be specific and heavy--suspension without pay, loss of job for insubordination, loss of teaching certificate, civil liability for damages, criminal liability with fine or imprisonment, classification as "known child abuser.''

We recognize, from our own teaching experience and from current news reports, that educators face an increasingly untenable situation: Drugs, weapons, and outrageously antisocial behavior are rife in the nation's schools. Nevertheless, it is unacceptable for school personnel to employ violence against children in order to restore order; reasoned professionals ought not to model the very behavior they seek to eradicate. A classroom should be a sanctuary, protecting its already beleaguered children. Perhaps the country needs special schools for the truly incorrigible, or some modification of its compulsory-schooling laws. We leave these points for future discussion. For now, we are convinced that the arm of the state has no business swatting the bottoms of children. We would agree with the Indiana Supreme Court, which said in 1853: "The public seems to cling to a despotism in the government of schools which has been discarded everywhere else.'' The time has come to discard the despotism of the hickory stick and to stop the beating, not only in Singapore but also here at home.

Charles H. Rathbone is an educational consultant in Cambridge, Mass. Ronald T. Hyman is a professor of education at Rutgers University. Both are attorneys and former teachers.

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