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Missouri school district revives paddling to discipline students

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 8/25/2022 María Paúl
© Catherine McQueen/Moment RF/Getty Images

A school district in southwest Missouri is bringing back a measure it last resorted to over two decades ago to address disciplinary problems: spanking students.

Classes started Monday for the 1,900 students in Cassville R-IV School District, about an hour west of Branson and some 15 miles from the Arkansas border. During open house, families were notified that the school board had adopted a policy in June allowing “use of physical force as a method of correcting student behavior.” Parents were handed forms to specify whether they authorize the school to use a paddle on their child, the Springfield News-Leader reported.

Formally known as corporal punishment, the disciplinary measure usually involves striking students on the buttocks with a wooden paddle. In Cassville, staff members will employ “reasonable physical force” — without a “chance of bodily injury or harm” — in the presence of a witness, according to the new policy. A teacher or principal must also send a report to the superintendent explaining the reasoning behind the punishment.

What exactly constitutes “reasonable physical force” is unclear. Superintendent Merlyn Johnson declined an interview request from The Washington Post, saying, “At this time we will focus on educating our students.” However, he told the News-Leader that younger students could receive one or two paddle swings, while older students could get up to three. Parents, Johnson said, had thanked the district for approving the practice that has mostly been in decline across the country.

“Parents have said ‘why can’t you paddle my student?’ and we’re like ‘We can’t paddle your student, our policy does not support that,’ ” Johnson told the outlet. “There had been conversation with parents and there had been requests from parents for us to look into it.”

Corporal punishment is not new in American schools. For centuries, students have been whipped or struck by rulers and paddles. In 1867, New Jersey became the first state to ban the practice in public schools, but it was over 100 years before other states followed suit. Even so, a 1977 Supreme Court decision — Ingraham v. Wrightdeemed corporal punishment at public schools to be constitutional and left it up to the states to decide what to do.

The punishment is still legal in public schools across 19 states — including Missouri. In almost all states — except for New Jersey and Iowa — it’s also allowed in private schools.

Study of twins links spanking to antisocial behavior

Groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Psychological Association have warned that corporal punishment can spark academic, emotional and behavioral issues. A 2016 Journal of Family Psychology study found that spanking increased the risk of aggression and antisocial behavior.

The United Nations considers corporal punishment to be a human rights violation. The international organization’s Convention on the Rights of the Child urges countries to ban the practice.

“In any other context, the act of an adult hitting another person with a board … would be considered assault with a weapon and would be punishable under criminal law,” researchers Elizabeth T. Gershoff and Sarah A. Font wrote of corporal punishment in a 2016 study.

The Government Accountability Office says the number of American students subjected to corporal punishment is “significantly understated.” The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which compiles data on the practice, last reported figures from the 2017-2018 school year. That data shows that more than 69,000 were struck at school nationwide. Mississippi had the highest rate, with more than 20,000 students, according to the office, followed by Texas with almost 14,000 and Alabama with over 9,000. In Missouri, nearly 2,500 got the punishment.

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How the measure made it back to Cassville after lying dormant since 2001 started with an anonymous survey sent in May to parents, students and employees, Johnson, the superintendent, told KY3.

“One of the suggestions that came out was concerns about student discipline,” he told the station. “So we reacted by implementing several different strategies, corporal punishment being one of them.”

Johnson said the disciplinary action will be used only as a last resort when punishments like suspensions or detentions aren’t working.

“The positive reinforcement, we love it. That works with a lot of kids,” Johnson told the News-Leader. “However some kids play the game and their behaviors aren’t changing.”

Some parents are not pleased. Miranda Waltrip, who has three children in the district, said she was shocked by the policy, which she called inappropriate, OzarksFirst.com reported.

“We live in a really small community where people were raised a certain way and they’re kind of blanketed in that fact that they grew up having discipline and swats,” Waltrip told the outlet. “And so, for them, it’s like going back to the good old days but it’s not because it’s going to do more harm than good at the end of the day.”

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