EVERMAN, Tex. — Anthony Price does not mince words when talking about corporal punishment — which he refers to as taking pops — a practice he recently reinstated at the suburban Fort Worth middle school where he is principal.
“I’m a big fan,” Mr. Price said. “I know it can be abused. But if used properly, along with other punishments, a few pops can help turn a school around. It’s had a huge effect here.”
“This boy might need a blistering now and then, with his knucklehead,” Ms. Morgan said, swatting at him playfully, but she added that she never wanted him to be beaten like that. “I’ve decided, we’ve got to get corporal punishment out of the schools.”
Over most of the country and in all but a few major metropolitan areas, corporal punishment has been on a gradual but steady decline since the 1970’s, and 28 states have banned it. But the practice remains alive, particularly in rural parts of the South and the lower Midwest, where it is not only legal, but also widely practiced.
In a handful of districts, like the one here in Everman, there have been recent moves to reinstate it, some successful, more not. In Delaware, a bill to rescind that state’s ban on paddling never got through the legislature. But in Pike County, Ohio, corporal punishment was reinstated last year. And in southeast Mississippi, the Laurel school board voted in August to reinstate a corporal punishment policy, passing one that bars men from paddling women, but does not require parental consent, as many other policies do.
The most recent federal statistics show that during the 2002-3 school year, more than 300,000 American schoolchildren were disciplined with corporal punishment, usually one or more blows with a thick wooden paddle. Sometimes holes were cut in the paddle to make the beating more painful. Of those students, 70 percent were in five Southern states: Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas.
Often the battle over corporal punishment is being fought on the edges of Southern cities, where suburban growth pushes newcomers from across the country into rural and religiously conservative communities. In these areas, educators say, corporal punishment is far more accepted, resulting in clashing attitudes about child-rearing and using the rod.
“I couldn’t believe it when I learned about it,” said Peggy Dean, a mother of three students in Union County, N.C., a rapidly growing suburb south of Charlotte. “If I’d known, I’d never have moved into this school district.”
As views of child-rearing have changed, groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association of School Psychologists and the American Medical and Bar Associations have come out against corporal punishment.
“I believe we have reached the point in our social evolution where this is no longer acceptable, just as we reached a point in the last half of the 19th century where husbands using corporal punishment on their wives was no longer acceptable,” said Murray Straus, a director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire.
Among adherents of the practice is James C. Dobson, the child psychologist who founded Focus on the Family and is widely regarded as one of the nation’s most influential evangelical leaders.
DuBose Ravenel, a North Carolina pediatrician who is the in-house expert on the subject for Mr. Dobson’s group, said, “I believe the whole country would be better off if corporal punishment was allowed in schools by parents who wish it.”
Dozens of lawsuits have been filed around the country, including as recently as August in a case involving a student and a baseball coach in Cameron County, Okla., but thus far, courts have tended to side with school districts in cases where a corporal punishment policy is on the books, said Nadine Block, the director of the Center for Effective Discipline, a group opposed to the practice.
In North Carolina, paddling is banned in the largest cities, like Charlotte. It remains legal in 70 percent of the state’s districts, although since they tend to be small and rural, fewer than half of the state’s students are covered.
Union County is one of the nation’s fastest-growing, with dozens of new suburban developments, often populated with transplants from the Northeast and elsewhere.
Ms. Dean, one of those transplants, came across the corporal punishment provisions while reading through her new district’s school policies and, shocked, decided to mount a campaign to have it outlawed that has made her the bane of local officials.
“They don’t like outsiders coming in and telling them how to run their schools,” Ms. Dean said.
She rallied others to the cause, finally forcing a vote on the issue last year.
School board members voted 5 to 3 to ban the practice, but under the district’s rules, a supermajority of six votes was needed, so the policy remains on the books.
“Some of our school board members felt that, if it were used correctly, as it would be, corporal punishment would be yet another deterrent to keep students from misbehaving,” said Luan Ingram, the chief communications officer for the district.
Still, Ms. Ingram said, “none of our 41 principals have chosen to use it, and none of them plan to use it.”
One of those who joined Ms. Dean’s crusade was John Erker, who retired from the New York City Police Department and relocated his family to North Carolina.
“We thought it would be a lifestyle for the whole family down here, a little more laid-back, a little more country,” Mr. Erker said. “But we’re in the middle of the Bible Belt, and a lot of these old-school people really believe that this is the right thing to do with children.”
In more rural Robeson County, Ms. Morgan said her son, Travis, was punished last year for taking part in a punching game called flinching. She complained that it was too severe, but district officials ruled that the paddling had been justified.
Al Kahn, a spokesman for the district, said he understood that corporal punishment was not embraced everywhere. “I guess every part of the country has a different way of looking at things,” Mr. Kahn said, “and down here we’re pretty unique.”
Mr. Price, the middle school principal, also said corporal punishment worked. He arrived at the school two years ago, hired, he said, to turn around an institution that was rife with fights, students cursing teachers and gang activity.
Not until months after he arrived, Mr. Price said, did a parent tell him that corporal punishment was used at the high school. He got permission to reinstate it in the middle school, too, and began with the 2005-6 school year, during which 150 of the school’s 685 students were paddled.
The Everman district is not unique in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in allowing corporal punishment. A study by The Dallas Morning News in August placed it fifth among area districts in instances of corporal punishment, far behind schools in Prosper, north of Dallas, for instance, where nearly 15 percent of the students were paddled in the 2005-6 school year.
But, in two of Dallas’s largest suburban districts, Plano and Frisco, paddling was banned this year, as it was in Memphis last year.
Mr. Price said he initially encountered resistance. “I was cursed out so much, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “And I’m talking about the parents.”
But gradually, the tenor of the school turned around, he said, for the better. He designed what he called the school’s “discipline ladder,” beginning with a warning for a first offense and escalating through push-ups, detentions and isolation from the other students during the school day.
Finally, there is the fifth rung. At that level, in consultation with parents, students can choose among corporal punishment, having their parents “shadow” them through a full school day, night school or outright suspension. In 8 cases out of 10, Mr. Price said, the students choose the paddling, although this is allowed only a few times.
“If it’s not changing their behavior, then we figure the pops aren’t working and we try something else,” Mr. Price said.
Mr. Price said he definitely believed there was a “cultural factor” behind the persistence of corporal punishment in some parts of the country after it has disappeared elsewhere.
“You hear people say, Well, you know, it’s in the Bible, don’t spare the rod and spoil the child,” he said.
He uses it, he said, because he believes it works.
“The rule is, never hit in anger,” Mr. Price said. “We always talk to the child before the punishment, make sure they understand why it’s happening, and then talk to them again afterward. None of it is cold or harsh. We try to treat the kids like they’re our own.”
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