The use of corporal punishment as discipline in North Carolina schools is now practiced in just three counties. Child advocacy groups are urging them to end it, saying that it does more harm than good. Davin Eldridge has more.
Most students throughout the state who get into trouble at school are likely to be sent home with a note, or given after-school detention, or even suspended. But for students in Macon, Graham and Robeson Counties, corporal punishment is still a means of discipline. Referred to locally as “paddling”, corporal punishment is the age-old practice of spanking students with a wooden plank—traditionally handcrafted by a teacher or principal many moons ago to dish-out old school discipline to troublemakers.
“Corporal punishment was effective in correcting my behavior as a student,” said Macon County Schools Superintendent Chris Baldwin. “But part of the reason that it was effective in correcting my behavior was that it was clear from my parents that if I ever received corporal punishment at school, I would receive the same thing when I got home… As a teacher and an administrator, I have used corporal punishment in the past. I’ve seen it be effective in correcting student behavior. At the same time, there are other methods that are just as effective.”
State law says that school districts are allowed to set their own disciplinary policies, including corporal punishment, as long as each instance of discipline is performed before a second school official as witness, and is logged and reported back to Raleigh at the end of every year. Even though the other 112 school districts in North Carolina have abandoned the practice, corporal punishment survives today under state law as a disciplinary option for just a few remaining schools here in the mountains.
“To a certain extent, it’s an expectation in this region that students who are misbehaved in school get some sort of corporal punishment,” says Baldwin. “I think there is that expectation among a fairly significant population in Macon County.”
Just like in Macon County, parents in Graham County who allow their children to receive corporal punishment seem to be doing so for traditional reasons. In a written statement, Graham County Public Schools attorney Ellen Davis said “it appears that students and parents may be opting for corporal punishment more as a cultural decision.”
Tom Vitaglione, of NC Child, a state youth advocacy group, agrees: “It’s one of the last vestiges of the old south that we seem to be hanging on to, and we hope that disappears soon.” Vitaglione retired as the head of Child Health from the Dept. of Health and Human Services back in 2000. Since then, he has called on school boards across the state to ban the practice of corporal punishment, and has seen more than seventy districts do so since he began.
“The General Assembly has been reluctant to change it statewide, and so we have had to work district by district over the years to convince local boards to do away with the practice,” says Vitaglione. “Now we’re down to just three districts still using corporal punishment.”
But while some parents still stand by paddling as an option for discipline, Baldwin admits that overall use among schools is on the decline. In fact, the school board in his district is currently considering banning the practice. Last year Macon County reported a total of 11 instances of corporal punishment, as opposed to 27 the year before.
“Many teachers and administrators are using other disciplinary methods—either because they believe they are more effective, or because they are afraid of the liability that’s brought about by corporal punishment,” says Baldwin.
In neighboring Swain County, the school board banned the practice after being used just once. Macon County Parent MorganMurray is among the growing number of parents in his district that believes such discipline is best reserved for parents on the home front.
“It’s not really something I’m in favor for,” says Murray. “I don’t really like the idea of anyone in the public school system putting their hands on my child in that manner, and to be honest, I’m happy to see it go.”
However, Margaret Sweeney is among the parents in Macon County who have found corporate punishment to be effective, as her own child was one of the few to receive it last year. “I feel like a little bit of embarrassment goes a long way, and if the teacher has exhausted all of their disciplinary actions, and that’s what she’s had to resort to, then so be it.”
As of last year, 19 other states, mostly in the south, still maintain some form of corporal punishment in their schools—including Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina. For WCQS News, I’m Davin Eldridge.