School Climate & Safety

Review of Corporal Punishment Hits Nerve in Memphis

By John Gehring — April 14, 2004 3 min read
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A decision by the Memphis school board to review the district’s corporal-punishment policy has touched off a debate over the use of physical force to discipline students.

One resolution being studied by a board committee would ban the practice in schools. Another proposal would keep the punishment, but clarify the policy to specifically give parents the right to decide whether they would allow their children to be physically punished.

While many states have banned corporal punishment in schools, Tennessee law allows local districts to draft their own rules on the issue. Several districts in the state, including the Nashville public schools, have done away with the punishment in recent years.

Policy in the 118,000-student Memphis district calls for using corporal punishment only as a last resort. A school administrator must approve the punishment, which typically involves a brief period of paddling, and it must be done in the presence of another school official. But critics say students have been routinely paddled for whispering in class, playing poorly in an athletic event, and other minor matters.

The issue has elicited strong reactions from those who support the use of physical punishment as a way to teach students respect for authority—particularly, they contend, in an urban area where many students lack supervision at home.

Critics counter that an overwhelming body of research shows that corporal punishment is disproportionately administered to black males, harms emotional development, and does not help improve academic performance.

Memphis Superintendent Carol Johnson wrote in a guest column for TheCommercial Appeal newspaper last month that “no issue has evoked more opinion and emotional response recently than the question of corporal punishment in our Memphis City Schools.”

Ms. Johnson, who was not available for an interview, wrote that she hoped the policy would be abolished and that alternative measures could be found to set behavioral goals.

Cultural Issues

A flurry of letters and guest columns followed the superintendent’s commentary. Parents, scholars, and school board members all weighed in with opinions that reveal the cultural, racial, and religious undertones framing the debate.

Wanda Halbert, the member who brought the resolution before the board that would allow parents to decide whether they wanted their children to receive corporal punishment, says the issue touches close to home.

“Having been born and raised in the South, it’s a form of discipline that’s been implemented in our homes for years,” Ms. Halbert said. “By removing the ability to institute corporal punishment, you’re taking away another level of authority from adults. Our children are controlling too much of what happens in the schoolhouse already.”

But school board member Lora Jobe says the time to end corporal punishment has come.

“I’m surprised that in 2004, intelligent people choose not to embrace the research,” she said.

Don’t tell that to John Roberts, an assistant principal at Kingsbury Middle High School. The school, which has 1,800 students in grades 7-12, began paddling students again this year. The reason? Parents were asking for it.

Students also have the option of choosing an alternative punishment. But Mr. Roberts said 90 percent of black students choose paddling, compared with about 70 percent of white students and 50 percent of Hispanics.

“I think it’s part of their culture,” said Mr. Roberts. “They were brought up with it at home.”

Irwin Hyman, a professor of educational psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia and the director of the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives located there, says deeply held religious and cultural beliefs, particularly in the South, explain much of the support for paddling.

In the mid-1970s, Mr. Hyman said, only about two states had banned corporal punishment in schools. Today, the practice is outlawed in 28 states; 22 states still allow for such punishment.

But Hubon “Dutch” Sandridge, a member of the Memphis board of education and a longtime preacher, said he was not convinced by the research against corporal punishment.

Mr. Sandridge, who quoted several Bible verses regarding the proper discipline of children to justify his position in a recent newspaper commentary, said behavior problems in schools would be far worse without corporal punishment.

“Teachers and principals say this is our last line of defense, and if you take away this we’re in trouble,” he said in an interview.

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