Corporal punishment

Fascinating story in the Statesman from last week about the debate over the use of corporal punishment in schools.

People who are not educators can be confused about the meaning of corporal punishment. It is not a teacher shoving a student to break up a fight, pushing him from a chaotic classroom or striking him in self-defense. Corporal punishment is when a teacher deliberately inflicts pain as punishment or for discipline.

Technically, that could include coaches who order uncooperative athletes to perform squat thrusts or run extra laps. But most often it takes the form of smacking the student, typically with a wooden paddle, usually on the buttocks.

Texas is one of 19 states that permit the practice. Out of more than 1,000 districts, fewer than 100 prohibit the practice outright.

Yet it’s difficult to know exactly how many actively strike students. Neither the Texas Education Agency nor the Texas Association of School Boards keeps count.

Those districts that choose to administer licks or swats must have a written policy outlining the procedure. Most have similar guidelines: Use a less severe punishment before resorting to hitting, inform the student why he is being struck and have another district employee witness the act. It should be done in private with an approved instrument.

A bill pending in the Legislature, sponsored by Rep. Alma Allen, D-Houston, would require districts to obtain written permission from parents before using corporal punishment on their children. (About half already require some form of parental permission, according to the Texas Association of School Boards.) Supporters say the law would safeguard parental rights; opponents insist it would remove a crucial element of local control of public schools.

A late amendment to the bill, filed by Panhandle Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, exempts counties with fewer than 50,000 residents. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent estimates, that’s three-quarters of the state’s 254 counties.

Chisum’s amendment reflects a divide between rural districts and urban and suburban ones on how corporal punishment is viewed and accepted in Texas. Educators say that although most large cities and their surrounding communities generally have shied away from the practice, smaller communities continue to embrace it as a symbol of traditional values.

Chisum’s amendment was subsequently stripped from the bill by the Senate; the House then concurred with the change and the bill was sent to the Governor. In case you’re curious, as I was, “Board of Education policy prohibits corporal punishment as a disciplinary method within the Houston Independent School District” – see the Code of Student Conduct, page 14. That’s good, because I don’t hit my kids and I damn sure don’t want anyone else hitting them. I personally feel that hitting a kid is an admission that you don’t really know how to discipline that kid. I will admit that for some kids there may not be a good way to discipline them, though in such a case I still don’t see how hitting them is going to help. For the record, my parents’ disciplinary arsenal did include corporal punishment, so I’m personally familiar with it. I’d be stunned if as many as one out of ten households on Staten Island in the 1970s and 80s did not hit kids as a matter of course. The Catholic elementary school I attended into the sixth grade made heavy use of corporal punishment, to the point of sadism in the case of at least one teacher. Whether it helped any of the miscreants among my classmates find their way to the straight and narrow I don’t know, as I’ve long since lost touch with everyone from that school. But let’s just say I have my doubts. I feel like we know a lot more now than we did then, and as such I don’t understand why anyone would still think this was a good idea. And I really don’t understand why anyone thinks that requiring parents to be fully informed about it might somehow undermine “local control”. What do you think?

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