Breaking the Hickory Stick
The New York Times editorial, May 7, 2001

It is unconscionable for educators to cling to the right to beat a child in the name of learning. Yet Congress is considering a law likely to increase paddlings.

Every school day, children in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and 20 other states across the southwestern and southeastern United States stand a chance of being physically assaulted, often with a wooden paddle, at school and with the full sanction of the law. Not many are actually struck in the course of an ordinary day, and the number of children disciplined this way has dropped from 1.4 million in the 1979-80 school year to 365,000 in 1996- 97. But it is primitive and unconscionable for educators anywhere to cling to the right to beat a child in the name of learning. The practice is contrary to this nation's respect for individual rights and its legal traditions against punishments that are arbitrary and not administered under strict rules and limits. Corporal punishment in schools has been outlawed by most democratic nations. Yet Congress is considering a Teacher Liability Protection Act, supported by President Bush, that is likely to increase the number of paddlings in states and school districts where corporal punishment is still legal.

The strongest support for the practice of hitting children, in school or at home, comes almost solely from the Bible verses about sparing the rod. Not coincidentally, the practice of corporal punishment in schools is most prevalent where a fundamentalist belief in the Bible is strongest. But the Bible also advocates the beating of prisoners, a practice that is illegal in every state.

Educators, psychologists, doctors, civil-rights lawyers and parents have arrayed a persuasive body of evidence proving what, in fact, is plain common sense. Corporal punishment in school teaches a child to distrust authority, not to respect it, and creates an environment inimical to the self- confidence needed for learning. Paddling perpetuates a cycle of violence, teaching children that violence is an appropriate tool for managing the behavior of others. There are also discrimination problems with the practice. Disadvantaged and minority children face corporal punishment at a higher rate than others.

Legal challenges to paddling in schools have not been very successful, so far. In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4, in Ingraham v. Wright, that the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, applies to convicted criminals but not to students. Justice Byron White, writing in dissent, pointed out that by the majority's logic, a prisoner has more rights than a student. "If a prisoner is beaten mercilessly for a breach of discipline," Justice White argues, "he is entitled to the protection of the Eighth Amendment, while a schoolchild who commits the same breach of discipline and is similarly beaten is simply not covered." The failure of constitutional challenges to the practice of hitting students has not deterred enlightened legislators and educators, however. Twenty-seven states have made corporal punishment in schools illegal, and even in states where it is legal, many school districts, especially urban ones, have enacted policies prohibiting it.

Behind the Supreme Court's reasoning lay also the premise that "the openness of the public school and its supervision by the community afford significant safeguards against the kinds of abuses from which the Eighth Amendment protects convicted criminals." One of those safeguards though rarely used is the right to sue a teacher or administrator who inflicts untoward corporal punishment in a district where it is legal. President Bush worries a great deal about such suits, and he promised, during his campaign, to support a Teacher Protection Act, to safeguard teachers against "frivolous" or "nuisance" suits arising, in part, from legal corporal punishment. In February, Senator Mitch McConnell introduced the Teacher Liability Protection Act.

All the major educational associations, including the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, have argued that this act is unnecessary, since teachers are already protected by insurance through their school districts and professional groups. They point out, moreover, that in states where such acts have been passed like Texas, where corporal punishment is legal and more than 80,000 students are paddled annually according to the most recent statistics they effectually license a higher rate of corporal punishment.

SEE RELATED: Children at school, The New York Times editorial of 1871

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