The Indianapolis Public Schools board moved to eliminate corporal punishment at its 79 schools today, bringing an end to a decades-old policy and galvanizing the efforts of advocates seeking a statewide ban.
In a landmark decision monitored closely by national groups, the seven-member board voted 6-1 to strike a policy allowing teachers to discipline students by spanking them with a wooden paddle. The vote was held at the board's meeting room in Downtown Indianapolis.
Most IPS schools abandoned the act of paddling years ago, as many educators came to view the approach as a relic of a bygone era. But the debate resurfaced in March when two IPS teachers were suspended for five weeks after they paddled six third-grade boys. Both teachers have since been cleared of any wrongdoing and returned to their jobs.
Paddling opponents hailed the vote as a crucial turning point in Indiana, which is one of 22 states that allows the practice. The state has allowed the punishment for at least 30 years, last revising the law in 1995.
IPS Superintendent Duncan Pat Pritchett characterized the vote as a "historic occasion."
Indianapolis had been one of the largest remaining school districts in the nation to allow some form of corporal punishment, advocates say. All told, about 90 of the nation's 100 largest school districts have banned corporal punishment. Pritchett said IPS, which has a student enrollment of about 40,000, sits just outside the top 100.
"It's a national trend and we're following it," he said.
Board President Marianna R. Zaphiriou said the district had a duty to change.
"It is time for us as a public educational institution to be a role model," she said, "and say that hitting children is not acceptable."
Advocates of corporal punishment maintain the practice is a time-honored and effective form of discipline -- more efficient and persuasive than, say, suspensions or detention. Others point to how the practice is often underscored as a legitimate disciplinary tool in many religions, including Christianity.
"For those who believe corporal punishment is not a deterrent, they are not being honest," said Board member Michael D. Brown, a local pastor who cast the lone vote against the ban. "It is a deterrent. And if they take that away, they are taking an option away from teachers and parents."
Brown said a sizeable number of parents still champion the practice. As evidence, he referred to a sparsely-attended public hearing on the matter held Monday; five of the eight parents who testified spoke favorably about IPS's paddling policy.
But opponents in recent years have charted a national progression away from paddling. Their case is anchored by a growing body of research suggesting that repeated physical maltreatment can lower student achievement and inflict lasting harm on the psyche of students.
The seeds of reform are evident even in the Deep South, where support for corporal punishment remains the strongest, said Nadine Block, a retired school psychologist and director for the Center for Effective Discipline in Columbus, Ohio, an anti-corporal punishment group.
School officials in Dallas last fall approved a partial ban of the practice, requiring that parents give written permission before their child is disciplined. Educators in Georgia are considering a similar measure that would oblige parents to be present during the act. Pennsylvania lawmakers are expected to ban the practice sometime this year, making the state the 29th to do so.
This month, meanwhile, leaders of the United Methodist Church passed a resolution opposing corporal punishment, saying that it "models aggressive behavior."
"What we're seeing is a melting of the opposition," Block said. "Once it's banned, people often say, 'I can't believe we used to do that.' I would like to see the last paddle hung in the Smithsonian one day. Maybe someone from Indianapolis can provide it."
Block said the board's vote puts pressure on the Indiana legislature to adopt a statewide ban, though lawmakers have so far shown little serious interest in passing such a measure.
Peggy Hattiex-Penn, who represents two-thirds of IPS's roughly 3,000 teachers as president of the Indianapolis Education Association, sees corporal punishment is a fading practice. It's not backed by research, she said, adds to the threat of legal action against educators and burdens many young teachers with the unfamiliar responsibility of dishing out physical punishment.
As a new generation of school teachers is hired into the ranks of IPS and other major school districts across the nation, Hattiex-Penn said the days of the wooden paddle are numbered.
"The research says it doesn't help any," she said. "And I don't think it's really worth it. The teachers, they just don't want to get into that. It just doesn't work."
Call Star reporter Theodore Kim at (317) 444-6247.
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