It's 2012. Maybe It's Time for Schools to Stop Beating Children?

If you had to pick the one thing schools ought to be doing more of, what would it be? Focusing on smaller class sizes? Paying teachers higher salaries? Preventing bullying? Spanking students? Wait, spanking? Yes, at least that's what some people who live in Florida, where schools are allowed to paddle kids on the butt as punishment for misbehaving, feel is important. Oh boy. Are you there, 19th century? It's me, Florida.

In total, there are 19 states that still allow their public schools to spank students. Most of them, like Florida, are in the South or the Mountain West. School boards can opt out of allowing corporal punishment, but nearly all of the counties in Northern Florida still permit it. Fantastic job, as always, Sunshine State.

As for how this punishment actually plays out, it's like something from a historical novel. Spanking is doled out for all kinds of offenses, mostly minor, like talking back or being late. It spans all grade levels, from kindergarten to high school. Lucas Mixon, a junior at Holmes County High School in Bonifay, Florida, has been spanked since first grade and says, "It's just regular. They tell you to put your hands up on the desk and how many swats you're going to get." Schools mostly use wooden or fiberglass paddles, but at Lucas's school they use something that looks like a little canoe paddle—and craftily—they have their woodshop students make them.

Some parents are in favor of this heavy-handed practice because it's tradition. Bud Glover of Bonifay, Florida, told NPR,

I got my butt beat and I know what's right and wrong. And my children are going to know what's right and wrong. …I think the problem with society is we quit paddling.

Ahh yes, the old "if it was good for me, it's good for my kids" approach to parenting—always a winner.

Fortunately, not everyone is enthused about the idea of kids getting their butts whipped in school. Democratic state representative Ari Porth sponsored a bill that would have banned the practice statewide, but the bill failed, never even reaching committee in the legislature. So, for now, parents are left to object individually. Tenika Jones, of Levy County, Florida, has a son, Gierrea, who was paddled when he was five (during his second week at preschool) because he slapped another boy on the bus. Gierrea says a teacher made him take his jacket off, and, "Then [she] spank me on my booty. I cried all the way home. It was really hard." Tenika says the school principal had sent home a waiver for parents to sign to give the school permission to paddle their child. She had not signed it, but Gierrea was hit anyway—so hard it ended up leaving welts on his butt. She makes this observation, which raises a lot of interesting points:

If I would have hit my son how she hit him, I would have been in jail, I would have been on the news, I would have been messed up trying to get my children back. She whipped him up and to me that's child abuse.

Indeed, it does not seem right. Jones is suing the school district over the incident, but an attorney representing her says that the law does not even require the schools to get parental consent: "If the school board and the principal specifically authorize corporal punishment, it can be administered lawfully against the parent's wishes." That means teachers and principals are civilly and criminally immune, except in cases of excessive force.

Even if it was an extremely effective method of correcting kids' behavior, the idea of schools spanking children against their parents' wishes seems very wrong. But the fact is that spanking doesn't work. As Deborah Sendek, a psychologist with the Center for Effective Discipline, says,

What we tend to see is the students who are paddled are paddled repeatedly throughout the course of the academic year and the following year and the following year. That's one of the things that tells us it's not effective.

What's worse, not only does it not correct their immediate misbehavior, spanking is also more likely to make children aggressive when they grow up. It's a classic lose-lose.

Public schools are the lone hold-out when it comes to administering corporal punishment. It's not allowed in other public institutions like the military, hospitals, or prisons. I guess it's not good to hit adults who've been convicted of actual crimes, but it's totally fine to smack a kid across the butt for swearing in school? That is some good old-fashioned American logic at work.

Anyway, the Center for Effective Discipline says that in 2006, the most recent year for which there are statistics, 223,190 students received corporal punishment in the United States. In 2010, 3,661 students were spanked in Florida. So, this isn't a case of three kids being whapped a year. Fortunately, the overall trend of corporal punishment in schools is in decline, but it would certainly be better if it completely disappeared from the school system entirely and we found more effective ways of disciplining kids.

Spanking Lives On In Rural Florida Schools [NPR]

Image via Everett Collection/Shutterstock.