(Author's note: The following account of school paddling takes the form of a newspaper article, but is ficticious. Or, better stated, it is an account compiled from certain trends and truths in American public education. Namely:
- corporal punishment, while much rarer than it once was, remains legal in 23 U. S. states, and has been upheld by the U. S. Supreme Court, in "Ingraham v. Wright."
- some school districts, particularly in the American South, still allow paddling even at the high school level, usually on boys;
- some parents still endorse its use, and;
- yes, every once in a while, even a student body president has to take his licks.)
By Our News Staff
The return of the coach's paddle to Edison High School after a two-year hiatus has been greeted with general acceptance among pupils, and a virtual yawn by parents. It's even drawn support from the student body president who admits he had to feel its sting.
While it's still early to evaluate, the boys vice principal says there has been a very encouraging improvement in discipline, and decline in some infractions, since the paddle returned last fall.
"Corporal Punishment Referrals" by the Boys Vice Principal were stopped in Fall 1995 after a change in principals at the school. But after two years of meeting with parents, school board members, students and administrators at other schools, Principal Ralph Allen allowed "swats" to be used again at the start of this school year.
The new policy is in compliance with state law and local school district guidelines, Allen says. The policy exempts disabled students and pupils whose parents have filed objections to corporal punishment. In fact, the student himself can refuse the punishment and obtain an exemption on-the-spot. But exempt students who find themselves in trouble will instead receive a full one-week suspension.
The policy covers only male students. While state law permits paddling of girls, Allen knows of no school in the state that uses it. No one at EHS can remember corporal punishment of girls at school ever occurring.
"To say that I had some big moral objection when I stopped the swats in 1995 would be a giant overstatement," Allen said. "It's just that EHS had been swatting guys for as long as anyone could recall, many high schools had eliminated it, and I simply thought we needed to evaluate whether it was still a good idea in this day and age."
Many of those he asked over the ensuing two years thought that is indeed a good idea, and teachers and administratprs thought they saw an increase in fighting and a gradual rise in other infractions - disorderly conduct, harassment and horseplay - after the hiatus began.
"I met with the students and parents, and the general feeling seemed to be, 'if it works, bring it back," Allen said.
"So we carefully went through the old polciy, didn't change it all that much, had the lawyers and the board review it, and sent out a letter last summer that swats would be used again.
"We set up two meetings for parents, reserved the big auditorium, asked the vice principal and the coaches who would be using it to stand by for a barrage at the meetings, and we were totally underwhelmed. I think four people showed up for the first meeting, and only one lady came to the second. None of them requested their kids to be exempt."
Allen said that out of 890 male students at EHS, only 13 are exempt by parental request, in addition to another 34 who are exempt by reason of disability. "And of those 47, I think only one has gotten into disciplinary trouble this year. He was suspended," Allen said.
He addded, "it really seems to be sort of a non-problem."
Boys Vice Principal Mark Keller said all infractions for which paddling is a possibility seem to be down this year, and the decrease in fights is particularly noticeable. For simple fighting, without weapons, injury or substance involved, district policy has long required for the first offense a two-day hitch in "In-School Suspension (ISS)," during which the student is separated from colleagues and normal classes and activities, and basically is isolated for the entire school day. This year, in addition to the two days in ISS, those caught fighting also are paddled.
"Two years ago, the number of fights recorded in the first seven months of the school year was 92, and last year it was 137. This year it's 34," Keller said. "There might be other factors at work, but I have to conclude that the return of CP (corporal punishment) referrals is a big part of it."
Student Body President Brian Hammond, 17, admits with some embarrassment that he was one of those caught fighting. "I was stupid, and it was with a couple other soccer players during lunch after two bad games in a week, and a practice the day before that was a disaster. But that's no excuse. We were jerks and deserved to get our butts whipped, and that's exactly what happened.
"My older brothers had gotten the coach's paddle a few years ago, and they told me that it hurt pretty bad," he said. "So I was a little prepared, but it was still worse than I expected. It isn't brutal, but it's pretty darn nasty."
Hammond says he supports the punishment for others in the same situation. "it's a lot more nasty than just the ISS. The way Coach works it, it's even worse if you go back for a second offense. You definitely don't want to do that."
Under the CP referral system, swats are administered by one of the male physical education staff with another as witness, away from other students, in the coaching staff office the same afternoon that the referral is written. For the first CP Referral during a school year, the student receives four "swats" with a half-inch thick oak paddle, 4-inches-by-22, in which half-inch holes have been drilled. The second offense nets six swats, and subsequent violations eight, which is the maximum permitted by the school district.
"Coach will stop with one to go and offer to suspend it if you agree to run a bunch of laps and do some push-ups, or you can take your last one, which he makes clear will be real nasty. With my ISS starting the next day, we had to have a student council meeting and I didn't have time to run laps," Brian Hammond said, "so I took the fourth one. Coach was right! It stung like crazy!"
But Hammond said that the humiliation is worse than the sting, which doesn't last long. "It's supposedly private and confidential, but when you see a guy come into the locker room, change into gym shorts and then knock timidly on the coach's door with that pink referral slip in his hand, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what's happening," Hammond added.
"So, when I got out, there were guys in the locker room waiting for me. I dressed hurriedly because we had the council meeting, but I didn't try to hide it. I said, 'yeah, I messed up. Have your look, guys, but do it quick. I gotta go.' I tried to act tough, but it was humiliating.
"There's no way I'm going to do something that would get me swats again, but if I did, I'd have to take 'em. A full suspension would mean that I'd have to give up the student presidency, plus colleges would find out."
Vice Principal Keller said in the first seven months of the school year, 102 CP referrals were written, of which 81 were first referrals, 17 second and five third. Only one student refused and was suspended - it was a third referral, Keller said. He said he didn't have comparable statistics from paddlings in the 1994-95 shool year, the last year CP referrals were used until now, but believed they were similar.
"Our checks tell us now that about a fourth of high schools in the state still use the paddle, and in some states they don't use it at all," Keller said. "But for us, I think it works."
Not all at EHS are quite as happy. Ellen Thomas, English department head, says it's a throwback to "thirty years ago." She said she asked a friend, a civil liberties lawyer, for advice, and was told that reasonable paddling in schools has been found Constitutional. "And no, I don't hear complaints of abuse or anything," she said, "but I still don't think it's right."