Hazel Fournier remembers her teaching days back in the 1950s, when hitting kids who misbehaved wasn't so controversial. Now, as a school board member in Mobile County, Ala., the state's largest district, she sees how times have changed.
In a measure that's sparked heated discussion — as the topic has across the nation — the school board is debating putting an end to the practice of "paddling" in its classrooms. Alabama is one of the 23 mainly Southern states where paddling is still legal, and a paddling ban in the most populous district would likely send waves through the state.
Paddling, which involves spanking a child with a wooden board instead of the bare hand, is by far the most common form of corporal punishment used in schools. But the Mobile school board, like many others across the U.S., was split in a vote last week on whether any form of corporal punishment is effective discipline.
Fournier, who opposes paddling, said she poses this question to those who support it. "Do you want someone to spank your child in the classroom when you're not present to witness it? The bottom line," she says, "is if you don't want that to happen to your child, then I don't want it to happen to any child."
But it is happening to many children, and many teachers, school officials and even parents support it — although apparently in fewer numbers than those who support spanking at home.
While 56 percent said they disapproved of school spanking in a 1994 Newsweek poll, 65 percent approved of spanking in general in a 1997 Gallup poll.
Paddlings Down in Last 20 Years
About 400,000 children are hit each year in public schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education, and those data don't even include private and parochial school incidents. But paddlings are sharply down since 1980, when 1.4 million children were reported hit at public school.
Corporal punishment is banned in 27 states. Paddling is most common in Southern and Bible Belt states where the "spare the rod, spoil the child" philosophy is most popular.
Source: U.S. Department of Education
Although the decision to allow paddling or not is made by state or local officials, the federal government recently got in on the debate. The Bush Administration supported a recent proposal in Congress to protect teachers from liability when corporal punishment is used, but the measure was eventually dropped.
The threat of lawsuits, in fact, is the main reason many districts end up prohibiting paddling.
When parents get to court, however, they find a system not entirely sympathetic to the plight of kids paddled by teachers. Going back to a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said paddling was not cruel and unusual punishment, schools are more likely to prevail in the courtroom.
Questions of Racial Fairness
Beyond the threat of legal action, says Nadine Block, director of the anti-corporal punishment Center for Effective Discipline, some districts are ending paddling to prevent the appearance that they are neglecting the civil rights of children.
"When you hit kids with a 24-inch board that's an inch thick and 4 to 6 inches wide, this is not allowed anywhere else, not in prisons, mental hospitals, not in the military," Block said. "You can't hit your neighbor's dog like that and you certainly can't hit your neighbor with it."
Several medical and educational groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, oppose the practice.
Some critics also point to racial disparities in corporal punishment. A national anti-spanking group has asked the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights to audit the Mobile schools after the district released data showing that 70 percent of paddlings were administered to blacks, who comprise only 50 percent of the student body.
The cultural momentum against spanking has grown since the years following World War II, when parenting experts like Dr. Benjamin Spock spread the word that children are "little people" who may not respond so well to the punitive child-rearing practices of earlier generations.
By the 1990s, some experts claimed corporal punishment could cause juvenile delinquency, depression and sexual problems, to name a few. But for all the rethinking of corporal punishment, paddling proponents say it's still an effective tool and say no scientific evidence proves harm to kids.
A 'Healthy Fear of Authority'
Robert Surgenor, a recently retired police detective from Berea, Ohio, who headed his department's juvenile crime unit, says he's a perfect example of how corporal punishment works.
Surgenor's own parents spanked him, and in his experience, it fostered respect for rules. "Children who were spanked develop a healthy fear of authority," he said. While in law enforcement, Surgenor said, he also saw firsthand how children who had never been spanked could turn violent.
"They tell us if we strike a child as a form of discipline, they'll grow up violent," he said. "In law enforcement, we're finding the opposite is true."
For many supporters of spanking, what's important isn't the act itself as how it is done. There's a big difference between physical abuse and properly administered, mild spanking, they say.
The proper method, says High Point, N.C. pediatrician S. DuBose Ravenel, is to give one or two spanks to the buttocks, and only after tempers have cooled. Spanking should be the last resort, he says, when other forms of discipline fail.
"Spanking alone isn't the answer," Ravenel said, "it's a balance."
Using Proper Technique, Guidelines
Many spanking supporters also carry this philosophy over to the classroom, where they say someone not involved in the initial dispute should administer paddling.
Although spanking becomes more problematic when done in a school setting, Ravenel said, it could still be appropriate. "I don't think it's realistic or desirable that a lot of spanking be done in school, but it also shouldn't be legally prohibited," he said. "It should be left up to the parents and teachers."
Surgenor also recommends that parents and public school teachers reach an agreement about the use of corporal punishment. Without paddling, Surgenor says, "[Students] are not afraid of the consequences. If you think you're going to get away with something you're going to do it."