NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. To many people, a teacher spanking a student for starting a fight or talking back in class might seem like a relic of distant times, but it's more common than you might think. Though the trend is down, as recently as six years ago, a quarter of a million students were spanked at school, and laws in 19 states allow corporal punishment.
Experts argue about whether it works. Critics call it child abuse and note that students continue to misbehave even after repeated spankings. Supporters say it's badly needed discipline, that paddling teaches kids respect and keeps them in school.
But how does it work? Who decides? Are parents notified? And do they have to give permission? How hard, and how many times? If you've had experience as a teacher, administrator, a student, what happened, and how did it work out? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, the Amish beard-cutting case and the limits of hate crimes. But first Sarah Gonzalez joins us from member station WMFE in Orlando. She covers education for StateImpact Florida, that's a collaboration between NPR and member stations around the country. Nice to have you with us today.
SARAH GONZALEZ: Thank you, nice to be here.
CONAN: And how common is spanking in Florida schools?
GONZALEZ: So it tends to be an issue in the rural parts of the state. So it tends to be in the Florida Panhandle and a couple other rural areas in Florida. And it ends up being about half of the counties in the state. And it's not going on in the major cities: Miami, Tampa. It's going on in the really small towns.
And in Florida, the most recent data shows that just over 3,600 students were spanked at school, but that doesn't say the number of students - that doesn't say how many times students were actually spanked, just that there were, you know, 3,600 students that were.
And when you look at the data, students who are paddled once are very often re-paddled.
CONAN: So recidivist, as it were. County by county, so it's by school district, each district decides for itself?
GONZALEZ: Yeah, so in Florida, in 2007, the state decided that if school districts wanted the right to paddle students, they had to apply, and the school board has to hear public testimony from parents, teachers, students. And then the school board decides whether or not to continue to allow the practice of corporal punishment in schools.
And now even though a district may decide to use corporal punishment, each principal at every different school can decide not to use the practice. So there's no real consistency, and schools can also decide, you know, it's up to each district to decide whether high school students are going to be considered too old to get a spanking or whether kindergarten students are going to be considered too young to get a spanking.
CONAN: And some other basic questions: Who in each school makes the decision this is a spanking offense?
GONZALEZ: So it's up to the principal and the assistant principal. The assistant principals are generally the ones that end up doing the spanking. And it can be for things like throwing pieces of paper or talking back or consistent tardiness. Those are the offenses that I heard when I was reporting in Northern Florida.
CONAN: And how much? I mean, how many spanks?
GONZALEZ: So there are actually very few regulations on school corporal punishment. There's not much language that says, you know, how you're supposed to spank students. You know, how far back do you, you know, place your arm before you end up swatting the kid? Or how should the board look?
Districts tend to say three swats is the maximum. So if you, you know, you talk back once, maybe you'll get two swats, and if you talk back three - you know, it's you're third or fourth time, then you might get the maximum amount of swats.
CONAN: And is parental permission required in advance?
GONZALEZ: So Florida districts can send home a waiver. Many schools that do use corporal punishment, they send home a waiver asking parents for permission to paddle students. But that permission slip is just kind of a courtesy. It's not legally binding. So if a parent were to sign it and say no, I do not want you to paddle my student, a principal can fail to check that student's file, spank a student, even though their parents asked them not to, and there's nothing that the parent can do, you know, against the school or against the principal.
Schools have the legal right to paddle students against parents' wishes. If the school board decides that we are going to be a district that allows school corporal punishment, then schools are immune both civilly and criminally from any lawsuits.
There is one loophole, which is that parents can argue that excessive force was used or that the paddling was cruel and unusual punishment.
CONAN: And there are other questions, too, about frequency, and you mentioned there's a court case, you reported on one in Florida, where a parent said they did not give permission, their five-year-old child was spanked twice and that it resulted in welts on his body.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, the mom says that the - that her son, Geirrea Bostick, had welts on his bottom when he came home from school, after he rode the school bus, and so she decided to - she filed a notice to sue the Levy County School District. And I actually just spoke to the attorney, and the school district ended up settling the case. They paid Tenika Jones, the mom, some amount of money to settle the case.
CONAN: Settle it out of court.
CONAN: OK. Now when the spanking occurs, you mentioned no need to notify the parents. Do the parents need to be notified afterwards?
GONZALEZ: Yes, the state does require that schools notify parents after corporal punishment has been administered, and the only other real requirement is that the state also requires that a witness be present when students are getting spanked.
CONAN: So that somebody's there to say this is what I saw. And - well, let's get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email is email@example.com. We want to hear from people on all ends of this, people who have been teachers and students and school administrators, as well, 800-989-8255. Madeline(ph) is on the line. Madeline's with us from Fort Wayne in Indiana.
MADELINE: Yes, how are you? And thank you for taking my call.
MADELINE: In the early '70s, when I first commenced to teach at a particular junior high, I was told to paddle a female, which I did not believe in doing. And so I put in a request to transfer from that junior high. Nevertheless, within the school corporation where I am - well, I've since retired, OK, and that was four years ago, in 2008.
But to make a long story short, they ceased having corporal punishment in the late '70s here, which I thought was just fabulous because I didn't believe in paddling. I did paddle two male students, and it did correct their behavior. Maybe they didn't want me to do that anymore. But I was, like, only 23 at the time, and I had a problem with paddling myself because since I didn't receive that type of punishment growing up, I said: Why should I inflict it on others?
CONAN: But you said it seemed to, at least in a couple of cases, seemed to work.
MADELINE: Well, it did with the two males. Maybe they just didn't want me to paddle them. I don't know. And I felt as if it was demeaning, you know, and I just refused afterwards, when they asked me to paddle a female. This was the assistant principal at the time.
So I just think corporal punishment is wrong. Now, I do know for a fact that in other places within the state, they continue to do so. But it has been alleviated within this particular system, and I think that's fabulous.
CONAN: OK, Madeline, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
MADELINE: Certainly. Goodbye.
CONAN: Goodbye. And Indiana, yes, she's correct, is on the list of 19 states where this is still allowed. In Florida, is it the case that teachers or administrators of one sex would spank a student of the opposite sex?
GONZALEZ: Yeah, so there, it depends on the school, and it depends on the district. Some school principals can decide only male administrators are going to paddle male students, and only female administrators will paddle female students. But other schools, you know, a male principal can spank sometimes a 17- or eight-year-old female or male student.
And, you know, when I asked students, when I was up there, and I was asking them how does it feel, how - do you feel uncomfortable, or how comfortable are you when you have to turn around and let a male or a female, you know, spank you on your butt, I was anticipating that I was going to hear some students, at least some students, say, you know, it's really uncomfortable for, you know, maybe, like, some sexual reasons. But I've never heard that. Students hadn't really thought of that.
And I was actually reluctant to ask students that question when I noticed that nobody was even touching on a sexual element because I didn't want to plant a seed. You know, I didn't want them to start seeing it this way if they hadn't already.
But I did eventually ask them, and, I mean, if you could see the look on their faces when I asked them, they were just really grossed out by what I thought was a very practical question to ask. These students view their principals as father figures, and in these rural small towns in the Florida Panhandle, it's totally acceptable to get spanked by your principal, and the students, the male and the female high school students, don't consider themselves too old to get a spanking by their principals or by their parents.
CONAN: And when you said earlier that one adult had to be present to be a witness to what happens, that clearly suggests that this is not done in public in any way, not in front of the whole class to humiliate the student.
GONZALEZ: No, it's done in a private room, away from teachers, away from other students. It's generally done in the principal's office or the assistant principal's office.
CONAN: And you mentioned on the butt. Does the law specify where you're going to be hit?
GONZALEZ: Yeah, so you have to hit them on their butt because I guess it's considered the area on the body...
CONAN: Most heavily padded...
GONZALEZ: Right, the area on the body that's the least likely to get injured. But, you know, when you talk to people, groups like the Center for Effective Discipline, you do hear about students having internal bleeding and broken tailbones and things like that.
CONAN: We're talking about spanking in school. If you've had experience as a teacher, administrator or as a student, what happened, and how did it work out? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Our guest is Sarah Gonzalez, the StateImpact Florida education reporter. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about corporal punishment in schools, legal in 19 states, though far from every school where it's allowed uses the practice. We're talking with Sarah Gonzalez, the education reporter for StateImpact Florida, one of the states that does allow corporal punishment. StateImpact is a collaboration between NPR and member stations covering the effects of state policy on the people in their communities.
If you've had experience as a teacher, administrator or as a student, what happened, and how did it work out? Our phone number is 800-989-8255, email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
We reached out to several principals and school administrators in Florida, some in favor of corporal punishment, some not, but none were available to comment on such short notice; it's also a school day down there. Sarah Gonzalez spoke with one of the proponents of corporal punishment, Eddie Dixon(ph), the principal at Holmes County High School in Bonifay, and here he explains how he uses the paddle, and you can hear him demonstrate with his hand.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOARD HITTING HAND)
EDDIE DIXON: That kind of thing. And that doesn't really hurt. It's just the sound.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOARD HITTING HAND)
GONZALEZ: It's a wooden board, and it sure looks like it hurts. Picture a really short rowboat paddle, a rectangle with a handle about 16 inches long, five inches wide and half-an-inch thick. Students at the high school get paddled about twice a week for doing things like...
COLE LONG: Oh, doing stupid stuff, you know, throwing papers, throwing pencils, a couple times for cussing and then back-talking. I used to be a really wild child.
GONZALEZ: That's Cole Long(ph), a senior at Holmes County High. He says the spankings teach students discipline and respect, but every once in a while, a parent from one of these small towns will say that's my job, like Tenika Jones of Levy County.
CONAN: And that's the case we mentioned just a moment ago, Sarah Gonzalez reporting that Tenika Jones settled her case, or the school settled its case, with Tenika Jones out of court and with an undisclosed payment. But a question, Sarah Gonzalez: Where do you go to buy a paddle?
GONZALEZ: Good question. It was actually the first question that I had when I actually - the first time I went into a principal's office, and I sat - I saw the paddle sitting on his desk, you know, amongst his manila folder and all his other principal things. I said: Where do you get one of these? Are there, like, approved stores by the district that you go, and you buy the paddle that's used to spank students?
There is no such store, and it turns out that at Holmes County High School, the principal that you just heard, he has his students make the wooden paddle in woodshop class.
CONAN: I'm sorry, it shouldn't be funny, but it is.
GONZALEZ: It's a little funny. I mean, the students think it's kind of funny also. And I asked him, you know: Are there any regulations? Are there any requirements? Does it have to be, you know, so many inches long and so many inches thick? And he said no, you know, there's not a regulatory agency that monitors or tracks what our paddles are like.
And in another school that I visited, in Madison County, it was an elementary and middle school, and their board was made out of Plexiglas, and it was a lot larger than the wooden board at Holmes County, but it was also a lot thinner. And some of the APs that I spoke to said that very often, the paddle will break while they're administering the punishment. Plexiglas is, you know, it's kind of flexible. It bends a little, I guess.
CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. This is Casey(ph), and Casey's calling us from Florida, from Destin, Florida.
CONAN: Hi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CASEY: Hey, Neal, thanks for taking my call.
CASEY: Yeah, I have firsthand experience with it. I grew up in a small town in Colorado, and through elementary and middle school, it was a pretty standard practice. It was - as far as the kids go, it was almost like a - kind of like a badge of honor. I mean, you know, we would kind of - you know, the previous lady was talking about making them, that's exactly what we did. We would make them in shop class, and we'd joke about whether we were making our own paddle or not.
CONAN: And did it work in your case?
CASEY: I don't know. I don't think it slowed me down too much. What I got teaching me the right and the wrong was my parents. And that's how I feel about the corporal punishment thing. If I'm going to, you know, mete out any punishment to my children, it's going to be me. I'm not going to allow anybody else to do that.
CONAN: All right, Casey, thanks very much for the...
GONZALEZ: Let me jump in and say something there. There's actually - a lot of the schools will actually call the parents and say hey, your kid just got in trouble, and if you want to come down and spank them yourself, you can, or I can do it for you. And more often than you might think, parents will drive down to the school and spank their own children.
CONAN: One of the arguments - and Casey, thanks very much for the call - one of the arguments that proponents of spanking put forward is that in fact it keeps kids in school. The alternative punishment, if you're not going to spank somebody, is suspension.
GONZALEZ: Right, they say, you know, paddling is a way to punish your child without keeping them from missing too much class, you know, that you call them out of their classroom, you spank them two or three times, and then they go back on their way, and they don't miss anything.
Now opponents argue that, you know, sure, fine, it doesn't keep students out of class, but it also doesn't deter kids from misbehaving. Like we said earlier, students who are paddled once are likely to get paddled again. But, you know, when you look at data on school suspensions or expulsions or detention, students who end up being suspended are also likely to get suspended a second or a third time.
So I think schools just haven't really found a discipline method that actually keeps students from behaving badly.
CONAN: This email from Scott in Illinois: As a seventh-grader I was paddled by the vice principal for smoking in the boys' room. The administrator called my mother to ask permission first and put her on the speakerphone. He said he wanted to administer five whacks for the offense. My mother said give him 10. I never smoked in the boys' room again, but I am smoking as I write this today. So you tell me whether it worked or not.
This from Mary in Woods Hole, Massachusetts: I remember the fear of the paddle really kept us in line many years ago.
I should say that Sarah Gonzalez also spoke with people who do not agree with the use of corporal punishment in Florida schools. Florida State Representative Ari Porth sponsored a bill to ban the practice.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE ARI PORTH: Just because you're born in a different county in Florida doesn't mean you should be any less safe than a child in Broward. And when I heard that this practice still exists, I was mortified. No child should not feel completely safe when they go to school.
CONAN: And he sponsored a bill to end the practice statewide, but Sarah Gonzalez, you reported it died in committee.
GONZALEZ: Yes, yeah, it didn't even reach a committee. It failed in the Florida Legislature this last year.
CONAN: And no efforts - and any prospects for another attempt?
GONZALEZ: They've brought it up a couple of times, and they may bring it up again, but right now our legislature is controlled by Republicans, and, you know, they think that if a school district wants the right to paddle students that it should be up to each school district and that the state doesn't need to make those kind of local decisions.
CONAN: Let's get William(ph) on the line, and William's with us from Nashville.
WILLIAM: Yes, I'm here.
CONAN: Go ahead, you're on the air.
WILLIAM: Yes, well, I have a couple of experiences. One, when I was in the ninth grade, we had a science teacher, and the science teacher would use a paddle on the boys, but with the girls, he would use his hand. And we had some very attractive girls in my class when I was in ninth grade, and I didn't realize at the time what was going on. But later at a class reunion a few years ago, the girls got together and started talking and realized that the guy was a pervert, was taking advantage of this.
And so I think it's very, very important that individuals of the same sex do the corporal - whatever corporal punishment there is. And second, I served in the state Senate for several years and was chairman of the committee that investigated paddling in Tennessee. And we - our report was that paddling is ineffective. It's a lazy way to administer discipline and that it should not be encouraged. It should be discouraged.
We did not outlaw it because there was - there was a large opposition to outlawing it. But we have discouraged it, and paddling is not used often in Tennessee.
CONAN: You said there was opposition to it. At least listening to Sarah Gonzalez' reports, and I'm not - I wonder if the situation is the same in Tennessee, there seems to be, in small towns, a real cultural difference, that people see this as - well, the parents paddle their kids themselves and see no reason that it shouldn't be done at school, too.
WILLIAM: That's true, that's true.
CONAN: And Sarah Gonzalez, you talked to people on that point. They seem to feel pretty strongly about it.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, I mean, I think the important thing to keep in mind is that in Florida, at least, each school district is essentially voting whether or not they want to keep the practice. And so parents and students and teachers and people in the community are voting that yeah, they do want to allow corporal punishment.
And some of the principals that I spoke to, there was one, Willie Williams in Madison County. He said, you know, I don't think that this would be possible in a large urban or suburban school district.
The reason why parents feel comfortable allowing someone else discipline their children in this way is because they all know each other. They go to the same grocery stores, and they go to church together and, you know, they listen to the principal speak at church. And so they trust their school disciplines to interact with their children, whether it's a male or a female, in this way.
CONAN: William, thanks very much for the phone call. Here's an email we have from Ruth in Houston: When I was in the fourth grade, my teacher spanked me with her yardstick. I was reading a library book rather than listening while she taught an arithmetic lesson. She called my name, and I thought the world was coming to an end. Going in front of my classmates while receiving a few smacks on my rear taught me a good lesson. I don't remember it hurting all that much, but the shame I felt was a valuable lesson to listen to my teacher. I loved and respected her, and I think she loved me too.
Let's see if we get Robert on the line. Robert's on the line with us from Phoenix.
ROBERT: I just wanted to share an experience that I had when I was a child, about eight years old. And I honestly can't remember exactly what I did to warrant being spanked, but I was taken to the principal's office. And he had a paddle on display with holes drilled in it, so you kind of knew right away this is something that can happen to you, just kind of warn you against anything you might do.
But I was paddled, went home and told my mother about it. And she didn't know that that was a practice. She found out and was enraged. She went to the principal and kind of gave her her two cents and pulled me out of the school. But more than that, it was what I remember as being shamed and just afraid. I mean, at that point - you're eight years old - I was afraid for my life.
CONAN: Afraid for your life.
ROBERT: Yeah. I mean that's the first time that anybody, up to that point in my life, had hit me. My mom didn't hit me. You know, she scolded me, put me in timeouts, but that was the first time anybody in my life had hit me. And I just remember being traumatized by that and after that being afraid, like physically afraid of my teachers.
And I just remember back to that and how much I recall that when I look at children and see that they're abused, whether verbally or physically, and I remember that feeling that I felt. And it impacted me more now as an adult than I think it did as a child. As a child, it just made me afraid.
And I can only imagine what it would be like to have an abusive household and then also have that happen to you at school. I mean what message would that send to you about adults, the people that you should have been looking to take care of you?
CONAN: Robert, thanks very much for calling.
ROBERT: Yeah. Thanks.
CONAN: We're talking with Sarah Gonzalez, the StateImpact Florida education reporter, about spanking, corporal punishment in schools. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And part of your reporting was - you're, of course, focused on Florida there, but part of your reporting was to look across the country. And figures are hard to come by - at least recent figures - but it does look as if the trend is down.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, the trend is down. Actually, New Jersey was the first state to ban school corporal punishment, according to the Center for Effective Discipline. They banned it in 1867. And the next state to ban school corporal punishment - I mean it was more than 100 years later before the next state did, and it was Massachusetts. And the most recent state to ban it was New Mexico. They banned the practice this last year.
I did want to say something about Robert. He mentioned his mom had pulled him out of the school. One of the students that I interviewed, the five-year-old who was paddled on his second week of preschool, the mom was upset for a couple of reasons because of the welts on his bottom, because it was the baby of the family and he got paddled so early on in his school career.
And she - according to her - she went to the principal and told the principal, you know, stay away from my son. This is a rural, small town, and this school that her son went to was the only elementary school in the area. So he was forced to stay at that school unless they moved, you know, to another county. And so she told the principal, stay away from my son. Don't lecture him. Don't talk to him. And I mean I imagine it's a difficult situation for parents.
CONAN: Yeah. I wondered, is there any information, any statistics on whether special needs students are - is it possible that they can get punished too?
GONZALEZ: I know that special needs students are often dealt with in a different way. They use seclusion and restraint, so they have a different protocol. Sometimes they'll - when they're disciplining them, sometimes they'll discipline students with disabilities by restraining them or putting them in a room off to the side. And other times they seclude students and restrain them just as a way to protect them from either harming themselves or harming other students.
CONAN: Here's an email from Carol: As a new school counselor, I witnessed a male school principal swat a 17-year-old girl bent over his desk with a paddle. She was a resident of a home for abused, neglected and adjudicated youth.
So that's another category. And some parents would be concerned. Is there any information that there is a racial bias?
GONZALEZ: So surprisingly in Florida, maybe surprisingly, I was assuming that there probably would be. You know, when you look at discipline data, it generally tends to be that African-American males are disciplined at a higher rate - suspension, detention, expulsion.
When it comes to corporal punishment - in Florida, at least - you know, the areas where it's happening, it's heavily, you know, white rural areas. And so there are more - there are higher numbers of white students getting paddled than, you know, black students, for example. And they're not - there's not much diversity in those areas, like Hispanics or Asians don't really make up any large amount just because of the community.
CONAN: Now, here's an email from Alex: When I was in middle school and high school, a student at Indiana in the 1970s, I don't recall paddling being anything controversial. I recall paddlings were conducted by a teacher with a witness in an empty classroom and the student was given a choice: to receive one or two whacks with nothing more said about it or having parents called in. Interestingly, most kids elected for the paddling because they knew that getting their parents involved would be worse. Sarah Gonzalez, thank you so much for your time today. This is really interesting.
GONZALEZ: Thank you.
CONAN: Sarah Gonzalez, the StateImpact Florida education reporter, joined us from member station WMFE in Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.