Official silence on hitting students
By Tom Vitaglione, January 6, 2012

RALEIGH -- In 1985 the General Assembly adopted a statute allowing local public school districts to use corporal punishment as a form of discipline, as long as a few procedures were followed. Since that time, the State Board of Education has held more than 300 meetings.

In none of these meetings, despite many requests, has the state board taken a position on the efficacy of corporal punishment, nor has it provided recommendations with regard to its use. It did not even ask local districts for reports on the use of corporal punishment until the General Assembly required such reports just a year ago.

While the state board does not have control over whether local school staff members hit students (with impunity and immunity), this institutional silence is reminiscent of recent reports regarding child maltreatment that have surfaced in the media and the courts.

In our system, we rely on the State Board of Education to make recommendations that improve educational outcomes for all our students. In study after study we learn that corporal punishment neither changes long-term behavior nor improves educational outcomes. So why the silence from the state board?

It is more baffling when we note that local districts have indeed been studying the literature and talking with consultants. While almost all of the 115 local districts allowed corporal punishment in 1985, only 24 do so now. And of those, less than half still actually hit students. So why the silence from the state board?

It is possible that state board members rationalize their silence by considering this to be a "local issue." But remember, we are talking about the state-sanctioned hitting of children. Shouldn't the state board at least provide some advice? For example, we now know that an administrator slapping a child in the face could cause a mild concussion. The state statute does not preclude slapping. Nor are there restrictions on the size of paddles, the use of whips or the removal of clothing. Shouldn't the state board at least offer some suggestions in this regard?

To its credit, the state board has supported the use of Positive Behavioral Support. This form of student discipline involves parents and provides incentives for positive behavior. This system is in place in more than 800 schools across the state and has been shown to improve attendance and academic achievement. Yet the state board conveniently avoids mentioning corporal punishment.

Next month the state board will release the first report (as required by the General Assembly) regarding the occurrence of corporal punishment in the public schools. The data have been available for months, but apparently the state board feels no rush to find out whether corporal punishment is administered disproportionately to minority students, as has been alleged.

The General Assembly recently granted parents the right to exempt their children from corporal punishment. This was the result of a coordinated advocacy initiative on which, true to form, the state board remained silent. With this new right in place, more than 20 local districts have banned corporal punishment in recent months. Perhaps many more will do so before the school year ends.

When all 115 local districts have banned corporal punishment, perhaps then the State Board of Education will be emboldened to make a recommendation. Let's hope that other education issues are not approached in this manner.

Tom Vitaglione is a senior fellow at Action for Children North Carolina.

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