Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Back to School? In These States, Be Prepared to Get Spanked: Though Proven Ineffective and Sometimes Harmful, Corporal Punishment is Legal in Much of the U.S.

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Eliza Krigman is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post. 

She writes about politics, business, and lifestyle issues. full bio.
Put an end to hitting children in school.

Add that to the list, along with immigration reform, student loan reform, and spending authorization, of things Congress failed to do when it went on vacation earlier this month.

As a result, as kids return to school this month and next, in 19 states they will face the possibility of corporal punishment at the hands of teachers or school officials. That's despite the introduction in Congress on June 26 by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., of a bill that would outlaw the practice.

Despite decades of research indicating corporal punishment is not only ineffective but produces kids who are more badly behaved, many Americans view spanking as a reasonable and necessary disciplinary tool.

In February, a Kansas state lawmaker proposed legislation that would have provided a sound legal framework for the practice.

Moreover, corporal punishment in schools - as with punishment the criminal justice system metes out - falls more heavily on minorities. Data from the Department of Education shows that nonwhite children bear the brunt of U.S. schools' violent disciplinary measures.

While African American students make up approximately 17% of the national student population, they account for 36 percent of all students who receive physical punishment at school.

McCarthy hopes to end the practice.

“As a mother and a grandmother, [I find] the statistics are alarming,” she said after introducing the bill. “There is nothing positive or productive about corporal punishment, and it should be discouraged everywhere.”

McCarthy’s current effort is her third and final attempt to pass the Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act, as she plans to retire at the end of this term.

This time she has tweaked the measure to offer a carrot-and-stick approach. Instead of banning the practice outright, the law would attach it to funding: schools are free to implement corporal discipline but would lose some federal support for doing that. The same tactic was instrumental in persuading states to increase the drinking age from 18 to 21 in the 1980s.

In her prior efforts, the bill has stalled because of lack of awareness, an aide to McCarthy said. Much of her work since has therefore been focused on educating other members about this issue.
We now have enough research to conclude that spanking is ineffective at best and harmful to children at worst - Elizabeth Gershoff, associate professor of human development and family sciences, University of Texas at Austin.
Stalwart supporters of the measure include the ACLU and the Center for Effective Discipline, a nonprofit that advocates against corporal punishment.

“If you bring the wooden paddle schools use to hit children into an airport or a courthouse, security will stop you and identify it as a weapon,” said Deb Sendek, program director at the Center for Effective Discipline. “Hitting one child is hitting one too many.”

Critics of spanking children in school argue that it’s not an effective disciplinary tool, exacerbates behavioral issues, and is a violation of human rights. Defenders of corporal punishment don’t rally around a particular organization, but they speak up when the practice is under attack.

Paddling a small percentage of kids keeps the troublemakers and the rest of their peers in line, Kenneth T. Whalum Jr., a Memphis pastor, argued in an editorial defending the practice.

Whalum, who has served on the Memphis school board, cast naysayers as intellectually disingenuous about this form of discipline.

“Those who mischaracterize this method as beating are usually attaching it to some traumatic event in their own childhood, or basing it on some scholarly or empirical studies that are based on similarly traumatic experiences,” Whalum wrote.

The social sciences have taken a more disciplined approach to studying discipline. Overwhelmingly, the research shows that hitting kids isn’t good for them.

“We now have enough research to conclude that spanking is ineffective at best and harmful to children at worst,” Elizabeth Gershoff, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in a 2013 paper reviewing the significant studies on the subject.

In academic terms, spanking is regarded as a risk factor: Recipients of corporal punishment are more likely to have behavioral problems later in life.

“Even after you take into account children with previous behavioral and psychological problems, the research evidence shows that corporal punishment is related to more child aggression, more anxiety, and worse child-parent relationships,” said Jennifer Lansford, a professor and faculty fellow at Duke University's Center for Child and Family Policy.

Design by Marc Fusco
The 19 states where corporal punishment in schools is legal

Parents and guardians of school-age children in the 19 states (see illustration above) have some recourse, Sendek said. Even if their home state allows it, districts may prohibit paddling or other corporal punishment practices.

In those where it's allowed, she said, “If parents want to 'opt out' for their child, they need to write a letter stating that they are to be contacted before any type of paddling/ corporal punishment is administered.”

They should also make the child's teacher and the head administrator of the school aware of their position, make sure the letter is in the student's file, and retain a copy. It's no guarantee, but Sendek said that in her experience, "administrators and teachers will not paddle against a parent's wishes."

While the Education Department does not have an official policy on corporal punishment, it’s advocating for less severe and more “positive” disciplinary measures.

Earlier this year, it teamed up with the Justice Department to put out a “discipline guidance package” urging schools not to rely too heavily on harsh punishments such as suspensions and expulsions. While not addressing the disproportionate effects, a reduction in absolute terms would also reduce the impact on minorities.

The future of McCarthy’s bill is uncertain, though advocates hope reason and science prevail.

“Interventions like corporal punishment are deterrent at best,” said a former employee with the Office of Civil Rights at the Education Department. “The real focus needs to be on what we actually give teachers, school leaders, and systems so that we can prevent these things from being used.”

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