Outside the sprawling red brick school that serves Olentangy, Ohio’s elementary and middle school students, the timeless summer ritual of Little League baseball is in full swing. A modest-sized crowd cheers enthusiastically from bleachers and lawn chairs as one young fielder makes a nice play on the dusty diamond. Inside the school, in front of a much smaller crowd, the Olentangy Local Board of Education is discussing matters of some importance for the would-be baseball stars. The board is reviewing plans to upgrade the field–better dugouts, grass for the infield, safer light poles. Then it turns to a topic that probably is far from the Little Leaguers’ minds this evening, but one some of them may be acutely–painfully, to be more precise–aware of some day.Order now
The board is debating Corporal Punishment Essay, a tradition as American as the national pastime itself. The arguments voiced in Olentangy are the same as those reverberating across the country as more and more local school boards and state legislatures consider proposals to ban corporal punishment. Defenders of the practice, many nostalgic for the days when teachers wielded the paddle with impunity, claim that it works: I was paddled and turned out OK, they argue, so what’s wrong with paddling today’s students? Some intransigent youngsters only respond to a little old-fashioned discipline. Opponents counter with an equally simple argument: Schools shouldn’t be in the business of hitting children. They say the practice may temporarily suppress students’ bad behavior, but in the long term, it merely teaches violence as the way to solve problems. Parents, opponents point out, could be charged with child abuse if they subjected their kids to many of the disciplinary measures educators legally practice on students.
As a recent letter to the editor of The Seattle Times put it: “If you strike an adult, it’s called assault; if you strike an animal, it’s called cruelty; if you strike a child, it’s called discipline.” After an emotional debate, the Olentangy schoolboard votes 3-2 to keep its current discipline policy. In other words, teachers and principals in the 2,100-student district can still spank youngsters.
Corporal punishment usually is equated with paddling, but more broadly defined, it is any punishment that inflicts bodily pain for disapproved behavior. The corporal punishment abolitionists, as some opponents of this type of discipline call themselves, may have failed in Olentangy, but lately they’ve been winning many of their battles. In just the past five years, more than a dozen states have banned corporal punishment in their schools; last spring, Montana became the 22nd state to do so.
Many cities and towns have taken similar action. The anti-corporal-punishment movement has reached every state. Increased sensitivity to child abuse–both in the home and in society at large, including school–has bolstered the movement. Many influential national groups, including the American Bar Association and the American Medical Association, as well as education organizations such as the National Education Association and the National PTA, have all condemned corporal punishment.
Although the abolitionists find these trends encouraging, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Granted, the ranks of non-paddling states are growing; but only a few of those states used corporal punishment widely before banning it.
Teachers in many of the states that enacted bans probably didn’t notice a difference. Connecticut, for example, reported just 90 cases statewide a few years before its 1989 ban.
And teachers and school officials wield the paddle as often and with as much conviction as ever in many areas, especially the Bible Belt states of the South and Southwest. According to U.S. Education Department figures, more than 1 million students nationwide are spanked each year.
(Anti-paddling activists maintain that the true number may be two or three times that.) Texas alone racks up more than 250,000 paddlings per year. Add Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee, each with more than 60,00 0 annual cases, and the number constitutes more than half of the nation’s total. Arkansas earns the dubious distinction of leading the country in the proportion of students paddled each year–almost 14 percent.
American teachers who use corporal punishment are almost alone in the world. Among developed countries, only Canada and Australia allow paddling, and entire provinces in both .