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While the rates of paddling in schools have decreased dramatically over the past few years, in some places, use of the practice remains high.
By Rose Hoban
In their annual report on school discipline, state Board of Education members learned today that most of the incidences of corporal punishment occurred in one county: Robeson.
Of 203 cases of corporal punishment reported to the board during the 2012-13 school year, 141 of them took place in Robeson County. Graham, Macon, Swain and Bladen counties had a total of 58 incidences of paddling, while Caswell, McDowell, Mitchell and Onslow counties each had one. The highest incidences of paddling took place for children in 3rd and 4th grades.
“We’ve been looking at this every year for three or four years,” said the Department of Public Instruction’s Ken Gattis during the presentation on discipline and suspensions in schools.”
“It’s isolated to just a few schools where it’s on the books and it’s exercised by some principals who still believe in it,” he said.
The numbers have dropped “drastically” over the past few years, but for Tom Vitaglione, the drop isn’t fast enough.
Vitaglione, former head of child health for the state and now a senior fellow at NC Child, an advocacy group, said the practice should go away altogether.
“An ever-growing body of research indicates that corporal punishment has no effect on improving academic outcomes, nor does it change long-term behavior,” Vitaglione said. “When teachers use corporal punishment, the relationship between the student and the school and the teacher gets broken.”
‘Lack of safeguards’
About a quarter of the kids (52 incidences) on the receiving end of a teacher’s paddle in the 2012-13 school year were children with some form of disability, including speech and language impairment, learning disabilities and other delays, according to the report.
More than half of the children paddled were American Indians, 51 were white and 11 black and Latino children each were physically punished.
About three-quarters of the children paddled were male. The highest rate of incidence was in the fourth grade.
Vitaglione said he’s particularly disturbed by the fact that three pre-kindergarten students and 21 kindergartners were beaten by teachers last year.
“This lack of safeguards about hitting little children with big paddles is really disturbing,” he said.
Few regulations cover the size and weight of paddles used by teachers. “It’s probably two-and-a-half feet long, but no one knows for sure how large they are,” Vitaglione said.
According to Jean Smith, a retired pediatrician who used to lead the Wake County Human Services department, the American Academy of Pediatrics has for more than a decade called for the abolishment of corporal punishment in schools.
She said AAP policymakers reviewed the literature first in 2000 and then reaffirmed in 2012 that paddling in schools should be eliminated, and that in addition to not accomplishing the discipline it’s supposed to, it poses the risk of long-term harm to children’s mental health.
“There are behavioral techniques so that teachers can get back control in a classroom and discipline children but not in the sense of physical punishment,” Smith said. “There’s a difference between punishment and discipline. Discipline allows children to learn social norms, and how we do that with children takes thought and kindness. But we’ve found that physical punishment does not make that better.”
Smith said that in her pediatric practice she worked with parents to avoid physical punishment of their children.
“I’d ask about it, and about hitting or spanking, and I’d ask, ‘Does it work?’ And to a person, the answer was, ‘No,'” Smith said.
“Many studies have shown that paddling children does lead to more aggressive children,” Smith said, noting that when children get punished physically, they learn that violence is a solution to resolving conflict.
Robeson County health director Bill Smith said he’s made little progress in getting people in the county to reduce the use of physical discipline.
He said that last year he wrote an opinion piece for the Robesonian newspaper and, “The feedback was they thought their kids should be punished if need be,” Smith said. He noted that for a child to be physically punished at school, parents need to give permission.
According to the state Board of Education statistics, about half of the children paddled were American Indian.
“We’re a majority-minority county,” Bill Smith said, explaining that while the overall numbers of American Indians physically disciplined seems disproportionate, the public schools in Robeson County are half American Indian.
But he said he believed the high corporal punishment rate in the county related to poverty and unemployment.
“We’ve had about 10,000 jobs go,” he said.
Bill Smith also said that fewer than half of the people in the county have attempted any higher education and that rates of desperation are high.
He pointed out that Robeson County has the highest rate of violent crimes in North Carolina, which includes homicide, rape, aggravated assault and robbery. Smith posited that the high level of physical discipline in schools could be associated with the high level of violence people see around them.
When contacted about the high rate of corporal punishment administered in Robeson County schools, district director of student services Brenda Deese blamed overcrowding in county schools.
“When you contain more children in your schools, it is a natural occurrence to have higher numbers of discipline incidents,” she wrote in an email response to questions. “We are working to put more resources in place to deal with behavior and mental health issues as they emerge”.