Presentation to Elizabethton City Schools Board of Education
By Tom Johnson, February 20, 2018
Thank you, Madame Chair. Good evening everyone, my name is Tom Johnson, I'm with Tennesseans for Nonviolent School Discipline. My address is PO Box 120094 / Nashville TN 37212. I appreciate being given the chance to address the board about the corporal punishment policy that's currently being discussed. Since I can't cover all aspects of this issue, we have some supplemental points on our website, which is forkidsake.org (that's f-o-r-k-i-d-sake.org).
I'd like to start with three questions: What are the risks involved with paddling students? How well can those risks be managed? And do the benefits truly outweigh the downsides?
This paddle I brought tonight, I don't know how similar it is to the ones used at your schools. I have read where it says the principal must approve the instrument used, but there's nothing about the criteria for approval, no standards as far as what should be the size and weight of a paddle in proportion to the student being struck with it.
At the same time, school employees get no training on how to swing something like this safely and judiciously against a child's body. They're not required to demonstrate that they have really good, consistent aim and control. Some people don't know their own strength. And while it's true there has to be a witness present any time a child is paddled, witnesses aren't ever instructed on how they should intervene if the paddling goes overboard.
There are no safety pads to protect the student's tailbone and upper thighs, in case the paddle hits off-target. Maybe there’s a reluctance to acknowledge any chance of human error. But it has to be acknowledged in an honest policy discussion.
This lack of safeguards is true for most districts with corporal punishment, so it's no wonder there have been countless incidents where children are left with massive bruises, and sometimes bleeding [scroll down to last item on linked page, "Corporal Punishment Complaint"], as a result of being paddled. Mind you, this is despite the presence of a witness.
Sometimes the child requires medical attention. For days it may be painful for them to sit, or to sleep in their normal sleep position, neither of which really helps them concentrate on learning.
In a few cases, the injuries are more serious. A Mississippi student was paddled, fainted less than a minute later, and when he fell he broke his jaw. A girl from Ohio had weeks of hemorrhaging from just one powerful swat, leading doctors to fear that her uterus was knocked out of place. By the way, female-specific medical concerns led one Texas school district to ban paddling back in 1980, on the advice of a board member who was an OB-GYN. [Source: Mid Cities Daily News (Hurst, TX), 10/1/80]
And from a purely humane standpoint, it seems like no steps are taken to make sure a student is never paddled whose backside already has bruises or welts from a recent punishment at home. There's a lot that teachers and principals may not know about the domestic situation of the kids they're being told to inflict pain on.
Corporal punishment also raises the question of personal boundaries that we see increasingly invoked in conversations about sexual harassment. There was an article on the website BuzzFeed last fall written by Kirsten King and entitled "What it means when women say 'Me Too.'" One experience King recounts was when she was 15 and her teacher joked in class about spanking her and other girls for not knowing answers when he called on them. So imagine how uncomfortable she would have felt being actually spanked by a teacher, actually made to bend over and swatted on the butt?
Or consider the Utah state commissioner now being investigated for sexual misconduct, including charges that when he worked as a high school teacher, he spanked a female student.
Or just look to Red Bank, TN where a man was convicted of sexual battery in 2006 for spanking two teenage employees when they made mistakes, telling one she could either be spanked or be fired. But if it's OK for her principal to spank her at school to improve her behavior, then why not her boss at work? Young women don't need these mixed messages if they're going to be confident of their right not to be touched in certain places by men in authority. And kids of all ages who are conditioned at school to associate extra-parental authority with spanking are more likely to submit to it if proposed by coaches, camp counselors, priests, etc.
For another mixed message, we have the issue of hazing. In some instances, older students have paddled younger ones. These paddlings are denounced as brutal assaults, or at least reckless and liable to injure. [E.g., "4 FCHS seniors suspended in hazing incident"; Fort Collins Coloradoan, 9/4/99.] Yet often those same students are fair game for such treatment under the banner of discipline, and nobody balks at the hazards. As long as the paddler can say he followed procedure, he's got impunity.
Given the prospect of injury or excessive pain, I would put this question to the board: Can you guarantee parents that any paddling their child receives at school will not be overly severe? Because that's what parents are assuming when they consent to it. If you cannot guarantee that, your best bet would be to learn from the many districts in Tennessee that have been successful without using physical punishment, including Maryville and Knox County. Some of the strongest advocates for this trend are career educators like Ms. Peters, who've been in the trenches. For all the things ECS is doing right to be hailed as an exemplary district, you could burnish your image and reputation even further by making a clean break with this problematic form of discipline. Thank you.
Tennesseans for Nonviolent School Discipline www.forkidsake.org