Friday, August 21, 2009

Back To School: Corporal Punishment For Students

Like any parent, now that the summer is winding down, I am excited to get my boys back to school.  As much as I love the time that we have spent together, they need to get back to a routine.   They are whining like any other young kid would, about the loss of freedom and the late nights but what they do not feel is fear.  My children are well aware of the behaviour standards for both home and school. They know that if at anytime they should decide not to adhere to the rules that they will receive discipline, however; for them discipline does not involve any form of physical violence. 

In Canada, corporal punishment has long since been outlawed but this is not the case in the United States.  As millions of children return to school they do so with the knowledge that along with new friends and lessons,that the paddle is also awaiting them.  Despite much documented evidence that spanking is bad, adults continue to be violent with children, in the false belief that it encourages them to image alter behaviour that we have deemed unpleasant or dangerous.  I have spoken at length about my own dances with the belt and the trauma that is caused but many today feel that because they were spanked and turned out fine, that violence against children is acceptable.

The state of Tennessee allows schools districts and in some cases individual schools to set their own standards for corporal punishment. For decades, Memphis City Schools (MCS) were criticized for allowing spanking to continue in its schools. The MCS school board reviewed the policy several times over many years before deciding in 2004 to stop corporal punishment. However, paddling is still an accepted practice in the Shelby County Schools and some local charter schools.

The Shelby County Schools 2008-2009 Handbooks states, “As part of a progressive discipline plan, corporal punishment is permissible in Shelby County Schools. Corporal punishment may be administered by the principal or principal's designee in the presence of another professional employee. Corporal punishment shall not be used as the disciplinary action on a first offense, shall not be used as a choice in lieu of other disciplinary action, and shall only be used after other corrective measures have been attempted. The parent(s) or guardian(s) shall be notified when a student has been paddled.”  The handbook is available here.

The fact that this policy is being defended by none other James C. Dobson, founder of focus on the family, should be reason enough for a logical person to have a moments pause, about the legitimacy of this as a good approach to raising and disciplining children.  This is a man that clearly believes in authoritarianism based in male headship.  He is also well known for his attacks on the GLBT community under the guise of family values.  Is this really a man that any school policy should align itself with?

This policy is presented as though spanking and or paddling can be administered without emotion, as just another form of discipline.  Clearly the goal is not only to punish but to shame.  Students are paddled at assemblies so that their peers may witness.  Not only does this further shame the child, it serves to terrorize those that must witness this physical abuse. How can this possibly be a healthy environment for children to grow and learn in? 

Even parents who have opted out of this form of discipline, have learned that their children have been paddled by mistake.  This means that a child can never really be secure that they will be free of violence.  We also know that race plays a part in who gets spanked, as Black girls are more like than anyone else to be forced to endure corporal punishment in schools.  

The punishment is disproportionately applied to black students, according to the organizations. During the 2006-07 school year, for instance, black students made up 17.1 percent of the nationwide student population but 35.6 percent of those paddled at schools.

Black girls were paddled at twice the rate of their white counterparts in the 13 states using corporal punishment most frequently. And although boys are punished more often than girls, the report found that African-American students in general are 1.4 times more likely to receive corporal punishment.

With stressors like larger class sizes and economic pressures, how much more likely is spanking to be administered?   If we know that race is a factor on who gets abused, it is not a leap to assume that class could also factor into the equation.  We have a tendency to devalue bodies based in social construction and therefore at some point the class of the child in question must factor into the equation.

Children feel stress just like adults do and a change in family circumstances can lead to a change in behaviour for the negative.  Instead of dealing with the reason that a child may be acting out, violence is being offered as a solution.  Beating a child leads to fear and resentment and little understanding of why the behaviour must change, other than the threat of physical violence.

I wish that all children could return to school with the safety that mine will.  They will learn new lessons, meet new friends and have experiences that will guide them on the path to adulthood.  No child should ever associate learning with fear.  If we love children as we claim to, how can we continue to abuse them?