SPECIAL REPORT: Should corporal punishment be allowed in public schools?

SPECIAL REPORT: Should corporal punishment be allowed in public schools?
Published: Dec. 15, 2016 at 5:58 PM CST|Updated: Aug. 7, 2017 at 11:58 AM CDT
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SOUTHWEST LOUISIANA (KPLC) - For many of us, discipline in our formative years included a good swat on the behind, be it from the hand of a parent, a belt or a paddle. And that method of behavior-correction wasn't just a tool used in the home. It extended to schools. But that's something the Obama administration is asking to officially do away with. Last month, Secretary of Education, John King Jr., asked public school systems that still practice corporal punishment to prohibit it.

Ask many of our parents or grandparents about discipline in school growing up, and you'll likely hear tales of paddlings, a ruler-to-the-hand or other forms of physical punishment. Ask those same folks, and most will say it helped keep them in line, and it's what today's kids are lacking.

Thirty-one states have outlawed corporal punishment. Nineteen still permit it, including every state in the South. Following the Obama Administration's announcement, we posed the question on the KPLC Facebook page asking your thoughts. Reaction was mixed but mostly in favor of it.

"Yes. Without any reservation," one person wrote. "We got the paddle if we misbehaved and then got another one when we got home."

Others disagreed.

"Absolutely not! I would never consent to anyone paddling my child at school," another stated.

"I didn't know it was legal. I didn't know people still did it. I didn't know it was still approved in schools. So, yeah, that's a shock to me," said Tonya Whitehouse, a mother of two boys who attend J.I. Watson Elementary School in Iowa. A nurse in Lake Charles, she said her perspective on physical punishment changed because of abuse cases she's seen on the job.

"Before, I was ok with other people spanking my kids - my mom, my dad, aunts, uncles, whoever you know," she said. "If they were bad, then by all means, you discipline them. But, since working there and seeing these cases, it really makes you think in a completely different way."

Corporal punishment is generally defined as the use of a paddle, typically on the buttocks, as a method of discipline. Schools that receive federal funding are required to track and report the number of times corporal punishment is used to the U.S. Department of Education. The most recent data available is from 2013 and can be viewed online. In Southwest Louisiana, the numbers from that year break down as follows: 105 cases in Allen Parish, 85 in Beauregard, two in Calcasieu, zero in Cameron, 29 in Jeff Davis, and 293 in Vernon.

The policy in Calcasieu Parish states "teachers and principals are authorized to use reasonable corporal punishment to maintain discipline." The policy was revised and implemented in 2010, but Superintendent Karl Bruchhaus said that in March of 2014 former superintendent Wayne Savoy issued a directive prohibiting corporal punishment, one that Bruchhaus continues to employ.

"It's such a subjective and emotional issue," he said. "Every parent who has thought about using any type of corporal punishment on their own child usually does that when they're very angry. We don't want to create an environment in our school system where we have adults doing those sorts of things when they're angry."

Calcasieu Parish school employees are required to sign a decree indicating they will not use corporal punishment.

"I don't want them to be subjected to the negativity associated with possibly using bad judgment and be accused of paddling a lot harder than they should have since it's so subjective," said Bruchhaus.

Beauregard Parish Schools Superintendent Tim Cooley said the number of times corporal punishment has been used in his schools has decreased since 2013. Cooley told KPLC 28 students were subjected to it in 2014-2015 and 34 in 2015-2016. He said in some cases, students actually prefer corporal punishment over a detention or suspension.

"As per our discipline policy, corporal punishment may be substituted by the principal for one day of ISS (in-school suspension) or one-day bus suspension or two days detention. This constitutes the idea of students' choice preferring corporal punishment in place of ISS or detention," Cooley said.

When asked about his personal views on the practice:

"It can be an alternative form of punishment which allows for immediate consequences and returns the student back to the normal routine quicker. It is not a form of punishment that fits all students, which is the reason parents may opt their child out of corporal punishment."

"Obtaining parental permission prior to administering paddling is not necessary; however, parents who do not want their child paddled may submit a written request asking the school not to paddle, so another form of discipline may be used," said Hub Jordan, Director of Child Welfare and Attendance in Vernon Parish, which uses corporal punishment far more than any other Southwest Louisiana parish.

Superintendents in Allen and Jeff Davis Parishes did not respond to requests for interviews.

Dr. Richard Fossey is a professor of education at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and has thoroughly researched corporal punishment in Louisiana. According to him, 17 parishes have abolished it. Most of them are clustered in the southeast part of the state.

"It's clear that corporal punishment has been abolished in the urban areas all over the south," Fossey said. "There's no corporal punishment in the cities with one exception, and that's Shreveport. But if you go to Texas, those big urban areas - Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin, they've all abolished corporal punishment, and it's out in the rural areas and small towns, and that's true everywhere. It's a small town and rural phenomenon."

One he said, based on years of research, is overall ineffective.

"You get immediate compliance - 'if you don't stop this I'm gonna beat you' - but you don't get long-term compliance or change in attitudes from corporal punishment."

And that lack of compliance only increases as children get older.

"It's an assault on a young person's dignity to be paddled," Fossey added. "It's less harmful for small kids to get a swat than it is for a high school boy or a high school girl to get paddled with a board. And at the high school level, it's always with a board. They're not paddling with their hands. Would it be appropriate in the workplace for an employer to paddle a subordinate? Well, of course it wouldn't. And as kids get older and get closer to adulthood, it gets objectively more and more inappropriate and I think more and more harmful."

"There's no link with corporal punishment and better behavior. The only links we see are with worse behavior. The more children are spanked and paddled, the worse their behavior over time, the worse they do in school," said Dr. Elizabeth Gershoff, professor of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas in Austin. She co-published the research used by the Department of Education to support its call to abandon corporal punishment in schools. Fossey labeled her the nation's foremost expert on the issue.

"I think part of the reason why principals, teachers, and parents think that it's working is because it does get a reaction," said Gershoff. "If somebody hit me, I would react. It's painful, it's startling, you get a reaction and so I think people think 'Oh look, I got them finally to react this kid who was not listening to me finally is crying or whatever'. That doesn't mean they learn anything though."

Gershoff said research of corporal punishment and its long-term effects on thousands of children has yielded one conclusion.

"We know from lots of research with animals, with children in homes, that hitting children doesn't teach them anything," Gershoff added. "People think it does because it gets their attention, but it doesn't teach them right from wrong, what they should be doing instead in the future, which is really the whole point of discipline.

"And there are unintended consequences like mental health issues, worse relationships with family etc. The only thing they might have learned is: Don't get caught, because if you get caught, you'll get hurt. But the whole point of discipline is teaching children the 'why.' "

Gershoff also noted corporal punishment is no longer permitted in prisons or the military.

"The weakest, most vulnerable people in our population, we say it's OK to hit them and not to hit hardened criminals, not that I'm saying we should hit criminals, but it seems like an odd choice," she said.

Gershoff told KPLC particularly disturbing to her is that while it's OK for an adult to hit a child in a Louisiana school, if an adult hits an adult in that same school, someone is going to jail.

"For assault. But if they hit someone smaller, a kid, nothing happens to them. It's legal. To me that is crazy. It's crazy. The same object in the same environment? It's just who gets hit," she said.

And despite what many claim to be the effectiveness of such punishment, the "I was paddled and turned out fine" argument, Gershoff said that's not entirely accurate in most cases.

"Do we think it wasn't all those explanations and pats on the back and hugs and all that other stuff that made us who we are? All those other good things that parents did is why we are who we are. I think we turned out OK in spite of being spanked by our parents or paddled in school. It's actually all these other things that made us who we are and people selectively forget that, which I think is interesting."

Gershoff said even more alarming is a finding by Human Rights Watch that, in some cases, children were being paddled for symptoms of their illnesses.

"So, children with Tourette Syndrome who swear uncontrollably were being hit for that, children with autism who were not paying attention and not paying attention were hit for that."

In all, Gershoff said less than 1 percent of public school students in Louisiana receive corporal punishment annually.

As for the reasons the south continues to stick with what some experts call ineffective discipline: "We don't know for sure why, but there clearly is a pattern where the rest of the country has figured out ways to discipline kids without hitting them. The majority of school districts in the country don't use this practice anymore."

Fossey believes it boils down to cultural leanings, education and socioeconomics.

"The research is really clear that support for corporal punishment is connected to educational attainment - people who are more highly educated are more likely to oppose it. Socioeconomic status - wealthier people - oppose it more than low SES people."

We reached out to State Superintendent John White to ask if he's ever considered an order to discontinue corporal punishment in public schools. His office sent us this statement:

"The Department of Education recognizes that Louisiana lawmakers have legislated on the use of corporal punishment in Louisiana public schools, and we direct all school systems and charter schools to follow the state law."

We also contacted several local state lawmakers seeking their positions on the issue. When reached by phone, State Representative Mark Abraham of Lake Charles said he wouldn't feel comfortable commenting until he was able to examine the data and research further.

Senator Eric LaFleur, whose district covers Allen Parish, said it should be up to the parents, quote "whether a child shall be subjected to corporal punishment. It's the individual right of parents to make this decision. If they want to delegate this authority, I am OK with it."

"What a parent does with their own child is certainly their prerogative," said Bruchhaus. "What we do with their child may not be viewed in the same positive light once it's with their child. I find people are more than willing to have it done to other people's children, just not necessarily to their own. So we really just don't want to introduce that potential in the school system.

"I'm only for that because of my deep feelings on limitations. If my child is bad and needs the appropriate spanking, then, by all means, call me and I'll be on my way, but I feel other actions can be taken other than spanking in school 'cause I do all the other discipline here at home. I think as long as a child is disciplined in the home, you shouldn't have to discipline them in that manner at school."

To see your school's report, click here. Select your state and the year you want to look at, check the box on the left next to the school you want to see and select from the 'discipline' category on the right.

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