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Policy Details Who Paddles Students and With What

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Short of suspension, the punishment of last resort for an elementary school student in Fayette County, Tenn., is 15 inches long, 3 inches wide, and made of white ash.

Those specifications are part of the Fayette County school district's new policy on corporal punishment. It spells out in detail the type of instrument that can be used to strike a student "squarely on the buttocks, with reasonable and not excessive force."

Officials in the 4,700-student district--where a principal is charged with assault for allegedly bruising a student during paddling--hope the stricter rules will end paddle-related injuries and complaints.

"If the paddle is the right size and shape, and used properly, it won't hurt children," said Dale Summitt, the superintendent. Only principals or their designees are authorized to paddle students under the guidelines.

Always a lightning rod for controversy, corporal punishment is banned in 27 states. Last spring, delegates at a National Association of Elementary School Principals conference approved a non-binding resolution recommending that it be abolished in all schools.

Critics say that while it is commendable that districts such as Fayette County try to temper corporal punishment, such measures do not end abuses.

'Symbolic Act'

Last month, an Ohio elementary school principal made a similar argument, then resigned rather than paddle students as directed under a new policy. Mr. Summitt said, however, that parents in his community favor corporal punishment. "The purpose is not to hurt (students), but get them to submit to a symbolic act of submission," he said.

The policy review began after the mother of a 9-year-old boy claimed that her son's buttock was badly bruised after he was paddled last spring.

The incident led to a misdemeanor assault charge against David Edmonds, the assistant principal at Oakland Elementary School. A preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled for Dec. 16. Neither Mr. Edmonds nor his lawyer could be reached for comment last week.

Under the old policy, Mr. Summitt said, paddles came in all shapes and sizes, including long and narrow ones that easily bruised their young targets.

Attempts at Standards

His recommendations to the Fayette County school board defined corporal punishment as a maximum of three swats with a district-approved paddle.

Paddles for 6th through 9th graders are larger than those allowed in grades K-5, up to 3 1/2 inches wide and 18 inches long.

Parents can exempt their children from paddling by writing a letter to school administrators.

Fayette County is not alone in seeking standards for corporal punishment.

Ohio's North Fork school district recently approved a paddle that is 4 inches wide, 18 inches long, and at least 1 inch thick.

While North Fork officials have been criticized for the paddle's width, more controversy surrounds a requirement that administrators determine whether a student is bruised before he or she is swatted.

Critics have asked school officials whether this means someone is going to remove a child's pants and look for bruises, but Linda Booth, the superintendent of North Fork schools, said that would not happen. Instead, a school administrator would ask the child about existing bruises.

She said no one has been paddled in the 1,900-student district in at least three years, and none of its schools even has a paddle.

Ms. Booth said the county's school board, however, wanted corporal punishment as an option and followed state guidelines in developing its policies.

Also in Ohio, a former Morgan County school district principal has become the latest champion against corporal punishment.

When the Morgan County school board recently required principals in the 2,700-student district to paddle students, Margaret Foley refused and asked that her school be exempted.

When her request was denied last month, Ms. Foley resigned.

Statewide, the trend has been to ban the paddle. In the past year, some 400 Ohio districts have prohibited paddling, making 540 of the state's 612 districts swat-free, said Robert E. Fatham, an Ohio psychologist and the president of the National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment in Schools.

In a recent letter to a state senator, Ms. Foley supported such bans. "Surely, thinking adults can find a way to educate and discipline our children without hitting them," she wrote.

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