Two licks with a wooden paddle in the principal’s office was the price 11-year-old Kaley Zacher, of Dexter, Georgia, paid for ignoring warnings about falling behind in her school work.
Rules are rules, said her mother, Kimberly Zacher, so why shouldn’t the punishment be the same as at home when her daughter falls out of line?
“What we instill in our children is if you break the rules, there’s a punishment that you have to suffer the consequences for,” she said. “You don’t want to give two sets of rules.”
Although corporal punishment in American schools has declined in recent decades, paddling is still on the books in 19 states despite calls from the U.S. Education Department to curb punitive discipline, which has been shown to affect minority and disabled students disproportionately.
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“We know that the use of corporal punishment tends to be intertwined with other factors, such as a child’s race or disability status,” Deputy Assistant Secretary Tanya Clay House said in a statement Tuesday.
Black children were more than twice as likely to be corporally punished than white children, and nearly eight times more likely to be corporally punished than Hispanic children, the Children’s Defense Fund said in a 2014 report that analyzed 2009-10 Education Department data.
But in corners of the country where it remains deeply woven in culture and tradition, some school administrators say corporal punishment has broad support from parents, that it preserves learning time that would be lost to a suspension, and that they see little need to give up a practice that dates back generations.
“Corporal punishment is an immediate consequence to an action, and there’s no down time. ... It’s really pretty effective,” said Camille Wright, a superintendent in Enterprise, Alabama, part of the mostly southern swath of states where paddling is still allowed.
The U.S. Education Department, whose statistics show that more than 100,000 students are subjected to corporal punishment annually, has been urging schools through its “ReThink Discipline” initiative to create safe and supportive climates that emphasize positive behavior.
“The Department of Education strongly believes that states have the power to change,” House said.
Several medical and human rights groups have called for an end to a practice criticized as ineffective and potentially harmful.
“You want to keep kids in the classroom, but to suggest that the only way to keep them in is to beat them with a stick is ludicrous,” said Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. The ACLU teamed with Human Rights Watch for a 2009 report that called for banning corporal punishment in schools, saying things like peer courts, conflict resolution programs and character education were better approaches.
“Paddling can cause pain, humiliation, and in some cases deep bruising or other lasting physical or mental injury,” the report said.
Debate spiked in April after a mother in Georgia aired video of a Jasper County school official holding her crying kindergartner as he was about to be paddled and said she regretted giving the school permission to discipline him that way.
In her Alabama district, Wright said few parents sign an opt-out form that is sent home each year, a practice common in schools that paddle. Her district, like others, also phones parents for permission before administering up to three swats, even if they’ve already granted blanket consent, and requires another administrator as a witness.
There is a cultural element in support for the practice, notably among black parents in the rural South, Parker said.
“When we did our report it was sometimes difficult, particularly in southern states, to get support from communities of color for getting rid of corporal punishment. Some of that is a reflection of ... ‘This is what I’m used to. This worked for me,’” he said.
Wright said her district nevertheless is slowly moving away from corporal punishment for things like cursing a teacher or leaving without permission, even though there is little opposition.
Many states have outlawed corporal punishment in schools, but it remains legal in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming.
Kaley Zacher said the paddling she received from her vice principal last year after missing several assignments and receiving numerous warnings at Southwest Laurens Elementary School in Rentz, Georgia, left her shaken.
“I was sad and still scared and shaking, and I was crying a little,” she said. “I was just, ‘Suck it up and continue class.’”
But did she get better about her work?
Yes, her mom said. “She talked about it for a couple of weeks, and she said she didn’t want that to happen again.”