Spanking In School

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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: spanking in schools.

In August, the Republican governor 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 James had proposed to the state legislature, follows a similar one passed earlier this year in Virginia.

The Virginia law clarifies the state's ban on corporal punishment, allowing 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, as well as proposed measures in a number of other states, suggest a renewed interest among policymakers in the merits of paddling students for disciplinary infractions in school, after years of moving away from the practice. Over the past two decades, more than half the states have banned corporal punishment, often on the grounds it was not effective and too often led to abuse.

But even the staunchest supporters of curbing corporal punishment acknowledge that the tide has turned and that the public, in its desire for tougher justice, is increasingly willing to overlook the research of experts who dispute the value of spanking kids. "My guess is that things are going to get worse before they get better,'' says Irwin Hyman, director of the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives at Temple University in Philadelphia. "It's crazy; there is not one iota of evidence that corporal punishment has any educational or disciplinary value. But a lot of people are not only resisting that, they are also moving in the opposite direction.''

In Alabama, there has been some debate over whether the school-discipline law the governor signed was, in fact, a "paddling bill.'' "This is not intended to encourage or discourage paddling,'' says Dick Brewbaker, the governor's education 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.''

Alabama law includes no specific guidelines on corporal punishment, but a recent survey found that only nine of the state's 127 school districts prohibit it. "Teachers who commit abuse and assault are not immune,'' Brewbaker says. "We just think that boards should defend teachers who act under their own policies.''

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

An Illinois district applied this summer for a waiver from that state's corporal-punishment regulations but has yet to hear from lawmakers. "Paddling is always a last resort,'' says Allan Patton, superintendent of schools in Benton, Ill., "but we want to have the opportunity for the threat of this punishment.''

In Kentucky, state education officials banned corporal punishment 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.

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,'' Hyman of Temple says. "They should be giving protection to kids.''

Vol. 07, Issue 02, Page 1-24

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