Get Rid of Corporal Punishment? That’s “Acting Like Big Brother”

On Monday the issue of corporal punishment in Franklin County schools came before the board, as part of the review of section 6 policies.  We had been due to discuss this in April’s meeting, but because it had been a long one dominated by budget discussions, I moved that we table consideration of the matter to May. And so this past week, Policy 6.314 came up.

I spoke my piece on the matter–that corporal punishment has been dropped by 25 to 30 school systems in the state, that we needed to think about the school as a safe space for children, that principals were inconsistent in the system about its application.  “What people do in their homes with their own children,” I said emphatically,”is generally none of the county’s business. But in the school it is a public matter, and we should re-think whether this policy is achieving the public good we want.”

The response of the rest of the board was negative and hostile to my position.  One member had polled principals who had used the paddle in the last few years. They told him that they used corporal punishment only when everything else had failed.  He did not poll those who had not paddled to ask how they managed to avoid this last desperate measure.  Another member said she thought many people believed that the problems with discipline arose from insufficient spanking at home in the first place.

Yet another told me that my proposal to eliminate corporal punishment was “telling people how to parent and acting like Big Brother.”  This is a real masterpiece of Orwellian thinking, I must say. Taking away the right of a government official to hit children is akin to a dystopian socialist nightmare, in this equation.  Never mind the fact that I am *not* telling people how to parent, unlike my colleague who thinks there should be “more spanking at home,” but only talking about behavior of our employees in our own buildings.  But apparently paddling at school is one of those things that sets off the knee-jerk Tea Party self-pity reflex.  Whatever is, is right, and whoever questions it is wrong.

It was pointed out to me that there is an “opt-out” option, though the director believed that very few parents knew about it.  In fact, I am pretty sure most of the parents in Sewanee don’t know about the paddling policy, period.  The most hostile remarks came from another member for whom I have very little respect. When I noted that a constituent of mine told me about her son who was somewhat traumatized by seeing one of his schoolmates come back in tears from a paddling, this guy noted, “Hey, life is traumatic.”

“The school system doesn’t need to replicate that,” I replied.

“You and your opting out of policies! Opt-out of TCAP, opt-out of paddling. You can’t opt out of life.”

“But you can opt out of paddling, right?”

“What’s your point?”

“My point is that you’re making a non sequitur.”

“Well, you know where I stand on this.”

I think that if he knew what “replicate” or “non sequitur” meant, I might have suffered some paddling of my own.  But I think, all in all, I just came off as judgmental. I now wish I had pushed instead for an “opt-in” policy that might have a chance of passing.  I wonder if the business of spanking at home and paddling at school is, I suspect, a class issue.  The more money you have, the higher your class, the less likely you are to hit your children.  Or put another way, the lower your class, the closer you are to violence and the less inclined you are to think of anybody, even children, as having any personal rights in this regard.

In the end, Policy 6.314 is a descriptive rather than prescriptive policy, a statement not of what should be allowed but what is in fact allowable.  In a county where most residents do physical labor, the concept of making a living and paying your dues with your body is familiar one. To suggest that the body need not be subject to violence is to be introducing an alien idea in this world, one that perhaps separates Sewanee from the rest of the county almost totally.  I am sorry not to have been more convincing on this point, as I am still sure that I am right about paddling as a barbaric practice, but it has certainly been eye-opening to hear the reaction to its removal.  I guess 2014 is simply too early for Franklin County to do away with this policy.

Postscript.  So, the policy came up for discussion on May 12th, and I said, “Move to strike this policy, and I need a second.” It was my intention to wait a few seconds, and then say, “There appears to be no second; withdraw the motion.”  But in fact, the chair seconded it, “for discussion purposes,” as he said.  He then turned to Dr. Sharber and said, “Before we vote, do you have a recommendation?”  All of this was surprising to me, as I fully expected the thing just to die on the vine.

“Yes, I do have a recommendation,” she said.  “I have never spoken on this topic before, but feel I must now.”  She urged us to strike the policy for a variety of reasons.  All the research shows that corporal punishment in schools is counterproductive and that it is only effective when carried out by someone the child knows and trusts (more than they do the school principal).  Furthermore, she noted, it was hard to see how this policy could exist side-by-side with our status as mandatory reporters on child abuse.  “How can we be both paddling children, and at the same time be required to report when children are being hit?”

After her recommendation, other members expressed their opinions to the contrary. Unsurprisingly, the motion failed 6-1 (with one member being absent).  But the victory, to my mind, was that now there were two voices in opposition to corporal punishment in the county’s schools.

I talked with Dr. Sharber afterward, and thanked her for speaking up. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to let the matter drop– I was on the verge of withdrawing the motion, after all.  But she thanked me, instead, for giving her an opportunity to say something she should have said a long time ago.  “Someday, the policy will be struck and nobody will understand why we even had it,” she remarked, and I thought of the lines from “We Shall Overcome”: Deep in my heart, I do believe, We shall overcome someday.

Post-postscript. See now the article in the Winchester Herald Chronicle, “FC School Board votes to keep corporal punishment” (May 20, 2014), which has been posted on Facebook.  The comments are something. To wit,

  • good. if a child needs a spanking, s/he should get one. part of what is so wrong with this country today is the failure of parents to parent their children and spank them when they need it.
  • A good ole butt whipping never hurt anyone!
  • Parents should be responsible for discipline…if a school needs to discipline a student then it should partner with the parent(s)….and if immediate discipline is needed at school, then I am certain that there are more effective discipline methods than beating, hitting, striking, or spanking. This is 2014 people…jeez…
  • inflicting pain on a child is not going to fix the problem. there are better ways to discipline than this. poor decision here in my opinion.
  • This is abuse, we can ‘t spank our children in front of anyone without it being called child abuse, therefore, teachers shouldn’t b allowed to do so and not call it child abuse. I see lawsuits coming.
  • This is a sick sick educational system. We can hit you … Oh Lord help our children! The best we can do is inflict abuse on our children. Wow!
  • I think no man or woman has the right to put there hands on my child..what gives them the right to use a board but let it be you me or a will be in front of a judge for child abuse and D.C.S up your butt until they turn 18 shame on y’all
  • If a child does not follow the rules and knows that they are going to get a paddling because they did not follow the rules, then they have to face the consequences. Since when is paddling abuse? Now, if a teacher just went up to an child and paddled them for no reason, then yes, that would be abuse. Children have to be held accountable for their actions. They will find that out later in life.
  • The school will never paddle my child. I believe in spanking however if my child acts out in such a way the school feels paddling is needed I want to know about it and I wanna be the one to decide if it is needed. Some school principles and teachers go on power trips.
  • If a child is raised the right way at home he or she should not need to be spanked… No one but me will spank my child…. I don’t care who you are…. I raised my child to respect other and to be on his best behavior at school.

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
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