Time to retire the hickory stick? Divided school board looks at paddling today.
By Ruma Banerji Kumar
Commercial Appeal, November 22, 2004

For 10 months, the public has heard the numbers and the debate. For 10 months, it has been, "black and middle school children disproportionately paddled more" vs. "spare the rod, spoil the child."

Tonight, a philosophically divided Memphis school board prepares to answer the question of whether to keep paddling in city schools.

The stage is set for the end of the practice, or at the very least a massive reform of the way paddling is used.

Abuses found earlier this year showed students were paddled for not wearing uniforms and for missing shots in basketball games. Already, at least 38 Memphis city schools don't use paddling. But the way Supt. Carol Johnson sees it, tonight's school board meeting isn't about corporal punishment at all.

It's about respect. And safety.

"It's not about whether we keep corporal punishment or not," Johnson said Friday. "It's about how we keep our schools safe ... free of fights, gangs, weapons."

Johnson has put together a proposal of alternatives to paddling -- a mix of peer mediation programs, more counselors in schools and better training for teachers and administrators dealing with chronic disciplinary problems.

Her alternative plan, she hopes, will make the pill of banning paddling easier to swallow.

But it's a bitter pill for staunch paddling advocates like school board member Hubon 'Dutch' Sandridge, who has said that doing away with corporal punishment goes against the Bible's "spare the rod, spoil the child" philosophy.

"I'm not going to change his mind, or change the mind of those who have an opinion on this for religious reasons," Johnson said.

But the schools chief is looking to what she calls the school board's "swing voters." Members like Wanda Halbert, Michael Hooks Jr. and Willie Brooks, who have said they're open to doing away with paddling if -- and that's a big if -- there's a better alternative in place.

"I'm going in with an open mind," Halbert said Friday. "We can't come into this tainted with a set opinion when our constituents are so divided over this."

But Halbert won't be easy to sway. Most of her constituents, she says, support paddling, and that's not something that weighs lightly with this newly re-elected board member.

She also feels incidents like a violent food fight at Geeter Middle School help illustrate that teachers and administrators need as many firm disciplinary measures in their arsenal as possible, including paddling. Geeter's new principal, Jada Meeks, stopped the use of paddling in the school when she began this year.

"Paddling is one of the last forms of adult authority," Halbert said. "If we don't have something in place that will command authority with children, they're going to think they can just play."

Johnson's alternative plan has the kind of firm standards that might appeal to the swing voters on the school board. Her plan calls for:

A task force to develop behavior standards and get community involvement around them.

Behavior counselors in high-priority schools.

Better and more alternative schools. (She's looking at underused schools as possible locations.)

Teacher and principal training on crisis management.

Regular surveys that track behavior trends, look at effectiveness of programs in place, and make changes as they're necessary.

It will take until at least the end of May to get many of these alternatives in place.

More important is the district's effort to get enough funding for the extra staff Johnson's plan requires. She'll be looking for grants to fund much of it.

-- Ruma Banerji Kumar: 529-2596

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