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States Turn Up Heat in Debate Over Paddlings

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After ordering prison chain gangs back to work on Alabama's highways this year, Gov. Fob James Jr. turned his attention to another old-fashioned punishment: school paddlings.

The Republican governor last month signed into law a high-profile bill promising Alabama teachers that if they decide to spank a student, their school boards will be obliged to back them if they are taken to court.

The so-called teacher-immunity law, which Mr. James had proposed to the state legislature, follows one passed earlier this year in Virginia.

The Virginia law clarifies the state's ban on corporal punishment. It allows teachers to use "reasonable and necessary" physical force to maintain order and prevent violence. The law promises that teachers will be backed in court if they use such force in the classroom.

Those laws, along with bills aimed at reopening the issue of corporal punishment in a few other states, suggest a renewal of the political debate over the merits of paddling students for disciplinary infractions in school.

Over the past 20 years, just over half the states have banned corporal punishment, often on the grounds that paddling was not effective and too often led to abuse. Twenty-one of those states passed laws abolishing such punishment; four others banned the practice by state regulation, and two by an ACT of the state school board.

Most of the states that have not condemned the practice are in the South and the Southwest.

But the staunchest supporters of curbing corporal punishment acknowledge that the tide has turned and that in many cases public sentiment for tougher justice is willing to overlook the research of experts who dispute the value of such methods.

"My guess is that things are going to get worse before they get better," said Irwin A. Hyman, the director of the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives at Temple University in Philadelphia. Mr. Hyman has lobbied for laws to end school paddlings and has written books advocating his position.

"It's crazy; there is not one iota of evidence that corporal punishment has any educational or disciplinary value," he said. "But a lot of people are not only resisting that. They are moving in the opposite direction."

Necessary Option?

In Alabama, the debate continues over whether the school-discipline law the governor signed was a "paddling bill."

"This is not intended to encourage or discourage paddling," said Dick Brewbaker, Mr. James' education-policy aide. "We just wanted teachers to know that if they acted within the district's policies, they weren't going to be left to swing in the breeze if they were sued."

Mr. James, who was elected last fall, promised safer schools in his campaign and pledged to back up teachers who wanted to paddle unruly students. Mr. Brewbaker said that after taking office, Gov. James quickly surmised that too many superintendents were "managing by lawsuit" and avoiding any action that might put the district at greater legal risk.

According to its supporters, the law that Mr. James called a teacher-immunity bill expands the decisionmaking authority of teachers by giving them another option in maintaining order in the classroom. Such reasoning helped the plan win the backing of the Alabama Education Association.

Analysts say such a view of corporal punishment--as a necessary option for local school boards--may lead states that want to shift more authority to school districts to reconsider their stand on paddling.

Still, some Alabama officials say the issue is more about scoring political points than helping schools.

Officials counted 33 complaints from Alabama parents alleging paddling abuses over the past 10 years. In all but six of those cases, there was no abuse discovered. In a state that has one of the highest number of paddling incidents in the nation--53,443 reported in 1992--some observers wonder what all the fuss is about.

"We don't think this is a real solution to the discipline problem," said Sandra Sims-deGraffenriedsic, the executive director of the Alabama Association of School Administrators. "The infractions that you think of along with corporal punishment are not the discipline problems that are plaguing schools."

'Singapore Syndrome'

The issue clearly has appeal for lawmakers. Beyond the immunity laws in Alabama and Virginia, a California assemblyman this year introduced a bill to reinstate corporal punishment, and a lawmaker in Washington state repeatedly pitched a bill aimed at clearing up the connection between spanking and abuse. Both bills have received media attention, yet neither is expected to be approved. The California bill has been stalled, and the bill in Washington had advanced only slightly.

"What we have seen this year is a Singapore syndrome," Mr. Hyman said, referring to the widely publicized said, referring to the widely publicized caning of an Ohio teenager who had been convicted of vandalism in Singapore. He said many lawmakers and citizens are concerned that punishments are too lax for students who misbehave.

One Illinois school district, citing such concerns, applied this summer for a waiver from that state's corporal-punishment regulations and expects to hear from state lawmakers this fall.

"Paddling is always a last resort, but we want to have the opportunity for the threat of this punishment, and then let parents who know their kids better than the state legislature make the decision," said Allan Patton, the superintendent of schools in Benton, Ill., who argues that other discipline tactics are not working.

Kentucky state officials banned corporal punishment there in 1991, but lawmakers reversed that effort the next year, arguing that the issue of whether to paddle--like that of whether to distribute condoms in schools--is best decided in each community.

Alabama laws include no specific guidelines on corporal punishment. A recent survey by the state school boards' association found that nine of the state's 127 school districts prohibit paddling. Mr. Brewbaker said that districts now have a stronger option with the adoption of the new law.

"Teachers who commit abuse and assault are not immune; we just think that boards should defend teachers who ACT under their own policies," he said.

But paddling opponents say the issue is not that simple. "Whenever it's legal to hit kids, there is no way to control abuses, and boards end up defending abuse," Mr. Hyman said. "They should be giving protection to kids."

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