The days of padding children in school, as a form of discipline, could be numbered as three school systems across the state debate whether to continue the practice or look for alternatives.
On the Cumberland Plateau, some Crossville residents are trying to get the attention of the Cumberland County school board to begin a formal discussion. In Middle Tennessee, a lone Rutherford County school board member has asked that board to reconsider its policy. And in West Tennessee, the Memphis school board may be ready to put its long-standing paddling policy to a vote.
Paddling is legal in Tennessee, and it is up to each school system to apply the state law on corporal punishment, said Kim Karesh, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. The state does not keep detailed records on which districts use the punishment because it is legal, she added.
A resident in Crossville and a school official in Memphis would like to see the paddling policy in their districts change. However, in Rutherford County, a lawsuit filed by a Smyrna grandmother is what renewed the debate.
Last month, Judy Martinez and her grandson, 14-year-old Wesley Martinez, filed a civil lawsuit in Rutherford County Circuit Court, seeking $75,000 in damages. The suit alleges that a paddling bruised her grandson's backside and that the punishment was carried out in an unreasonable manner.
The suit moved Mark Byrnes, a Rutherford County school board member, to publicly address the county's policy at the monthly meeting last week. The punishment rule has been referred to the board's Policy Committee and will be reviewed next month.
What's going on
Toni Roberts, a Crossville mother of two and the vice president of Tennesseans for Non-violent School Discipline, said she became fed up with paddling after volunteering in a Cumberland County elementary school.
''I was watching these little kids get paddled, and they're screaming, and it takes one teacher to hold them and another teacher to paddle them, and I thought, 'This is too much,' so I decided to do something.''
Roberts said she feels like the county is making ''a little progress'' because the new Cumberland County High School principal has chosen not to allow paddling of the students there.
Still, her group hasn't been able to formally speak with the board of education about changing district policy.
''I think there's a lot of support in the community for corporal punishment,'' she said. ''It's a cultural thing, and it's just kind of ingrained in people.''
In Memphis, schools spokesman Vince McCaskill said an outgoing board member is behind the deliberation on the issue. The district's policy was drafted in 1958 and was been amended in 1963 and 1982.
''Lora Jobe … is really pushing heavily to have the board abolish corporal punishment,'' McCaskill said, referring to the board member. ''Now, there have been situations throughout the years where there has been abuse of the policy, but her concern is that we have a policy in place, but it is not being followed as it was written.''
McCaskill said an example of policy abuse occurred a few years ago when a high school basketball coach was found paddling his players for missing shots on the basketball court during practice.
He said the Memphis board could vote on the future of its corporal punishment policy in early November.
Change could be in the wind for the Rutherford County paddling policy, thanks to Byrnes.
Donald Jernigan, who sits on the Rutherford County school board with Byrnes, said he supports corporal punishment in schools but not the current language in the county's policy. The county's policy does not require parental consent.
''I would like to leave it there, but I do have some reservations about it, from the standpoint that I don't think you should administer it without parental consent,'' he said.
Harry Gill, Rutherford County schools superintendent, said he realizes there is a need for parental consent when administering corporal punishment. Gill didn't say which way he's leaning in the debate, but he called paddling ''risky business.''
''It's risky from the standpoint of everybody's not in favor of it,'' he said. ''We've been litigated against more than once, so it's certainly risky … but it does offer a viable option to the principal, and I think if corporal punishment is used, it should be with the blessing of the parents.''
Some local and national experts agree that schools might not be the best place for corporal punishment.
Experts who are in favor of spanking in the home say that type of punishment may be better served if dished out by parents.
Dr. Den A. Trumbull, a pediatrician in Montgomery, Ala., has participated in studies and authored opinions that support parents' spanking their children but generally stay away from corporal punishment in schools.
''In my opinion, I think spanking is best left in the hands of parents,'' Trumbull said. ''But I think a small school setting where parents are very involved might be an exception.''
Trumbull said when he gives a professional opinion during lectures and presentations, he rarely talks about school-related punishments because he believes it's the parents' prerogative on how and when to discipline their children.
Dr. Lloyd Elam, a Nashville psychiatrist, said when removing corporal punishment from an established system there probably will be resistance.
''The acceptance of corporal punishment varies from culture to culture all over the world,'' he said. ''In the distant past everybody accepted it as the way to go, but it just so happens that our society has gotten so violent and this is the reason we are beginning to move away from that.''
He said paddling doesn't help children understand what they've done wrong.
Like Elam, Terry Kopansky, founder of Tennesseans for Non-violent School Discipline and a retired Metro schools administrator, said the way to teach the offending child the lesson could involve a number of strategies, not including corporal punishment.
''There are a whole variety of things you can do,'' he said. ''For instance, if a child writes on a table, you can do a number of things … but something like cleaning the table in question or all of the tables in the room, which is called overcorrection, might serve the child better.''
The story so far
The Rutherford County school board decided to examine its paddling policy last week.
The examination stems from a lawsuit filed by Judy Martinez and her grandson, 14-year-old Wesley Martinez. In the suit, the Martinezes say a paddling left three distinct bruises on Wesley's backside: one just above the right knee, another in the middle of the left thigh and one at the base of his right buttock. The suit alleges the punishment was carried out in an unreasonable manner and says Wesley had to get medical treatment for torn muscles in his back.
At last week's meeting, the board didn't make any decisions because a recommendation has to come from the school board's policy committee first.
Board member Mark Byrnes asked that the topic be put on the meeting's agenda and said he hopes the board will at least consider amending the policy.
The next meeting of the school board's Policy Committee will be at 3 p.m. Nov. 10 at the Rutherford County Board of Education, 2240 Southpark Blvd. in Murfreesboro.
Related story: Six districts around Metro OK paddling
Michelle E. Shaw can be reached at 259-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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