If Schools Director Pedro Garcia gets his way, Metro schools will eliminate the long-feared wooden boards that some teachers use to keep their students in line. He and other school officials agree that paddling sends mixed messages to students, who learn to respect one another in school and to resolve their differences nonviolently — but are themselves subject to a practice some consider humiliating and violent.
Garcia told the school board Tuesday night he plans to ask it to do away with corporal punishment. Yesterday, he said that although the project is not his top priority, it does deserve attention from educators, board members and parents. ''We live in the year 2001; other states got rid of corporal punishment and Tennessee hasn't,'' Garcia said. ''I just think there are other means to discipline students than hitting them.''
Many Metro officials agree. Terry Kopansky, principal of Harris-Hillman School for special education students, considers paddling a form of violence. He doesn't see how a slap from a wooden board helps a child with behavioral problems. ''The big problem with corporal punishment is that you're modeling inappropriate ways to solve problems to the students,'' said Kopansky, who is also a founder and president of Tennesseans for Non-violent Discipline in Schools. Educators should strive to teach their students how to deal with problems more constructively, he said, with emphasis on interpersonal skills, good communication, peer mediation and positive reinforcement.
Nationwide, educators are turning away from corporal punishment. So far, 28 states have outlawed the practice. But according to Robert Fathman, president of the Dublin, Ohio-based National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment, Tennessee and other Southern states lead the way in the number of paddling incidents. ''A child in the South is 4,000 times more likely to be hit by a teacher than is a child in Northern states,'' Fathman said. ''Corporal punishment might be a more controversial issue in the South, where it is practiced more than anywhere else in the world.''
Tennessee law allows corporal punishment, but it leaves discipline policy decisions to individual school districts. Most systems in the Nashville area allow the paddle as a form of discipline, although two city districts have recently outlawed it. The Franklin Special School District did away with corporal punishment in 1998. Murfreesboro city schools banned the practice this spring. Julia Williams, assistant principal at Black Fox Elementary School in Murfreesboro, supported the school board's decision to abolish corporal punishment. She said it has not had a huge impact on how she disciplines students. ''It was not the backbone of our program. We have always taken more of a problem-solving approach.'' Other counties, including Cheatham, Dickson, Maury, Rutherford, Williamson and Wilson, follow the state standard and allow spanking after other, less stringent measures have failed, officials in those counties said yesterday.
At Barfield Elementary School in Rutherford County, administrators say they paddle students sparingly and only with the parents' agreement that it's the best choice of punishment. ''I'm very glad I work in a system where that decision is made by the school administrators,'' Principal Judy Goodwin said. ''When used sparingly, and when parents and administrators are involved, it can be an attention-getter. It is effective.'' Goodwin said some people resist paddling because they think any type of corporal punishment is harmful. ''It must be a humane situation. It's not intended to inflict pain but to serve as a reminder of what a student's responsibility is.'' There are districtwide guidelines, Goodwin said, adding that her school works to prevent situations where a paddle may be needed.
Patricia Cole, guidance coordinator for Metro schools, said there are many other ways to discipline students. ''There's a reason why a child acts out. The focus should be on getting to the bottom of the problem — what's the reason that a child misbehaves. We as adults need to deal with kids in a way that respects a child. Otherwise, what message does paddling send?''
Not a good one, said Everett Hanner, principal of Jere Baxter Middle School, which was among schools that use paddling as punishment most often. Statistics compiled by Metro's central office indicate there were 169 paddling incidents involving 85 students there last year. Hanner, who said Assistant Principal Michael Ross is in charge of discipline, disputed the numbers in the report and said the school avoids corporal punishment. ''Something is wrong; that's not right at all. (Ross) is a very gentle guy, and he only does it in accordance with the parents' wishes. ''This year, there's only one that I know of, and that's because the parent insisted. We counsel with students. His office is right next to mine, and I rarely hear him spanking anybody.''
Joan Lorber, whose child is in the fifth grade in Stokes Middle School, has been signing a form on paddling every school year, asking school officials to choose another means of punishing her child if the need arises. ''I absolutely oppose corporal punishment,'' she said. ''We'd never want anyone other than us spanking our child — we don't even do that.'' Lorber said she hopes Garcia and the school board will eliminate the paddling policy, putting the waivers out of circulation. ''There are other ways to deal with the baggage that kids bring into schools.'' Staff Writers Carly Harrington and Emily Heffter contributed to this report.