Hamilton County schools continue to allow ‘paddling.’ Why?
As summer draws to a close, parents across Hamilton County are preparing to send their children back to school—but in a school district that still allows corporal punishment, what type of environment will these students actually be a part of?
The use of corporal punishment—commonly known as paddling—in public schools is illegal in 31 states. The 19 holdouts are concentrated in the South, and, with the exception of Virginia, all of Tennessee’s neighboring states still allow corporal punishment.
According to Tennessee Code Annotated 49-6-4103, “Any teacher or school principal may use corporal punishment in a reasonable manner against any pupil for good cause in order to maintain discipline and order within the public schools.” In Tennessee, however, Hamilton County is the only large district to still allow physical discipline in the school system, and policy can vary depending upon the school.
The Hamilton County Student Code of Acceptable Behavior and Discipline states, “Corporal punishment is defined as physical discipline. Corporal punishment must be approved as policy for the school by the principal, and students must be notified what misconduct could result in this type of discipline. It is not intended to be used as a first method of discipline, but after several other methods have been used to modify a student’s behavior. Corporal punishment must be witnessed by a second school official or teacher. A parent can then request a written explanation of the reasons for the punishment and the name of the witness.”
This brief paragraph is the only statement concerning corporal punishment that appears in the Student Code. Meanwhile, Hamilton County’s school suspension procedures take up nearly half of the pamphlet. It’s worthy of note that a form of physical punishment apparently warrants less explanation and discussion than the school system’s equivalent of a time-out.
Not every school in the Hamilton County system utilizes corporal punishment. As the above corporal punishment procedure states, it “must be approved as policy for the school by the principal.”
According to David Testerman, Hamilton County School Board member representing District 8 and a former school principal, “Schools are not encouraged to use corporal punishment. And, in my view, children should not be disciplined outside of the parents’ knowledge.” However, he notes that certain disciplinary actions that involved physical activity, such as being asked to clean up a bathroom that the child has trashed, can mistakenly be recorded as corporal punishment.
How many schools in Hamilton County actually employ corporal punishment? The answer is not exactly clear. Even where paddling is allowed, it can be used sporadically or not at all. For hard answers about corporal punishment in Hamilton County, one has to look farther afield.
Since 1968, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has collected data on key education and civil rights issues in our nation’s public schools. The OCR uses this data to enforce and monitor efforts regarding equal educational opportunity.
The most recent statistics available from the OCR indicate that in 2011, corporal punishment was practiced in nine Hamilton County schools: Brainerd High School; Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy; Daisy Elementary; Hillcrest Elementary; Lakeside Academy of Math, Science, and Technology; Nolan Elementary; Ooltewah Elementary; Woodmore Elementary; and Washington Alternative School.
When reporting statistics about corporal punishment, the OCR divides the student population into two groups: students with disabilities and students without disabilities. In 2011, 74 students without disabilities in Hamilton County schools received corporal punishment. Of those students, 84 percent were male and 65 percent were black. Additionally, 11 students with disabilities received corporal punishment. Of those students, 82 percent were male and 36 percent were black. This makes for a total of 85 students who received corporal punishment in Hamilton County schools in 2011.
These statistics reflect points made by corporal punishment opponents across the country: Male students are more likely than female students to receive corporal punishment, and black students are more likely than white students to receive corporal punishment. Moreover, on the national scale, poor children and children with disabilities are more likely to receive corporal punishment than their peers.
Voices for and against
Despite the uneven socioeconomic distribution of paddling, some view physical punishment as a justifiable and necessary form of punishment. Those who have grown up in the Bible Belt have probably heard the phrase “spare the rod, spoil the child” before; it is a common mentality regarding child-rearing in the South. (The saying comes from Proverbs 13:24, which reads, “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.”)
Proponents of corporal punishment often depend on this philosophy and anecdotal evidence to support the physical punishment of children. “My father spanked me, and I turned out all right,” is often heard.
David Nixon, principal of John C. Calhoun Elementary in Calhoun Hills, South Carolina, and a supporter of corporal punishment in schools, was quoted in an article by Eric Adelson in Newsweek saying that “as soon as the student has been punished he can go back to his class and continue learning, in contrast to out-of-school suspension, which removes him from the educational process and gives him a free ‘holiday.’”
According to the conservative Family Research Council, “while loving and effective discipline is quite definitely not harsh and abusive, neither is it weak and ineffectual. Indeed, disciplinary spanking can fall well within the boundaries of loving discipline and need not be labeled abusive violence.”
Yet a study reported by Christie Nicholson in Scientific American concluded, “Those parents who approve of corporal punishment contend that they only spank as a last resort, do it only for serious misbehavior and only when they are calm. But the recordings often revealed the opposite. Parents seemed angry when striking their child, they did it reactively and for minor transgressions… Parents who said they supported corporal punishment did it often and with little provocation.”
Some see both sides of the issue. Wayne S. Brown, a mentor at Woodmore School, resident of the area, and a community activist states, “Corporal punishment is an old debate. Both sides use statistics and testimonies to prove their case. Therefore the debate will continue probably into the next millennium.
“Fortunately, corporal punishment is a choice. Parents can opt out if they disagree. As a volunteer at Woodmore Elementary, I know parents who agree and some who disagree. How a child is disciplined is a parent’s responsibility. Perhaps ensuring parents are equipped with knowledge on the many methods of discipline may enable more positive outcomes outcomes than debating on the yea or nay of corporal punishment.”
What’s the future of corporal punishment?
Adhering to child-rearing maxims of the past is not a guarantee of success in the present, and those who ascribe to a “spare the rod, spoil the child” mentality can overlook the fact that paddling is by no means the only form of discipline. Moreover, it is certainly not proven to be the most effective. Most child-rearing experts agree that corporal punishment does not teach children alternative behaviors to replace an undesirable behavior; rather, it teaches them to be sneaky in order to avoid punishment.
According to the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect, “The use of corporal punishment in schools is intrinsically related to child maltreatment. It contributes to a climate of violence, it implies that society approves of the physical violation of children, [and] it establishes an unhealthy norm...Its outright abolition throughout the nation must occur immediately.”
Many childcare experts believe that paddling teaches children to obey authority figures out of fear, not respect, these experts conclude, eliciting feelings of distress, anger, and shame. They object that physical punishment also teaches children that violence is a way to solve problems and reinforces aggression as an acceptable means of eliminating unwanted behavior. Through corporal punishment, they believe, adults teach children that those who are bigger and stronger can use physical coercion to impose their will on those who are smaller and vulnerable.
Hamilton County’s use of corporal punishment is just a drop in the national bucket. According to the OCR, Tennessee is among the top five states for corporal punishment in schools, ranking behind only Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, and Arkansas. In 2009, 16,645 students in the state of Tennessee were paddled—and 2,285 of those children had disabilities.
Efforts to ban corporal punishment at the state and national level have made little progress because many people simply do not realize that paddling is still allowed, much less practiced, and it is difficult to pass corporal punishment legislation without public support.
On the national level, recently retired U.S. Representative Carolyn McCarthy fought to ban corporal punishment nationwide for the past five years without success. Now that she has retired, it is unclear if another representative will take up the cause.
In Tennessee, the most recent bill that dealt with the issue was House Bill 0689 (HB 0689/SB 0664), aimed at prohibiting corporal punishment in public schools by amending Titles 37, 39, and 49 of the Tennessee Code Annotated.
You probably did not hear about HB 0689 on the news; it certainly did not make any headlines when it was introduced or when it failed to pass. In February of this year, Tennessee Representative Jason Powell introduced the bill, and it was assigned to the Education Administration and Planning Subcommittee. After idling there for more than a month, it failed to pass or even provoke discussion, so it lived and died quietly in the Tennessee House of Representatives within the span of a few weeks.
This, however, does not mean that change is not coming. The National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) has issued a position statement regarding corporal punishment, proclaiming, “National PTA will support efforts to abolish corporal punishment and efforts to develop alternative discipline programs to provide an orderly climate for learning.”
Said David Testerman, “Corporal punishment could disappear in a short period of time. It could happen this year. Those who believe it should disappear should contact their representatives in Nashville. They will do what is prudent for the times.”
Local Government Contact Information
City Mayor and City Council: chattanooga.gov
County Mayor and County Commission: hamiltontn.gov
Hamilton County Department of Education: hcde.org
Tennessee State Board of Education: tn.gov/sbe
PTA Contact Information
Hamilton County PTA: hcptacouncil.org
Tennessee PTA: tnpta.org
National PTA: pta.org