On Wednesday night, NBC 5 carried a report about a DeSoto mother, Ayanna Smith, calling for the immediate dismissal of a teacher at The Meadows Elementary for paddling her son, a kindergartener. Which doesn't seem that far out of bounds given that Texas' definition of criminal assault ("intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly causes bodily injury [including physical pain] to another") is remarkably similar to its description of corporal punishment ("the deliberate infliction of physical pain by hitting, paddling, spanking, slapping or any other physical force used as a means of discipline").
The scandal here, though, isn't that Smith's son Jalijah was paddled; it's that he was paddled without permission. "I said, 'Well, do you know that he has a 'no paddling' slip?'" Smith told NBC 5 of her encounter with the teacher. "No answers were given."
Texas is one of 19 states, mostly in the South, that still allow schools to use corporal punishment as a form of discipline. Most of the state's big urban and suburban districts have opted out of corporal punishment, though according to an analysis by the Houston Chronicle, the practice persists in more than 40 percent of Texas' districts including three (Duncanville, Lancaster and DeSoto) in Dallas County. During the 2011-12 school year, 28,569 Texas schoolchildren were spanked or paddled at school, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.
As we reported in 2014, when the indictment of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson on child abuse charges briefly thrust corporal punishment to the top of the public consciousness, DeSoto ISD is the most prolific local practitioner of corporal punishment. At the time, DeSoto Superintendent David Harris defended the practice and emphasized the care with which it is administered.
"We do not use corporal punishment lightly — parents are contacted prior to each administration for
verbal consent on top of the written permission that is required every year," Harris said in a statement. "We feel there are times, situations and age-appropriate considerations that can make this discipline method effective. We elect, as allowed by law, to keep all options available to redirect inappropriate behavior."
Neither of Texas' two leading experts on corporal punishment — SMU psychology professor George Holden and Elizabeth Gershoff, a developmental psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin — were surprised to learn that DeSoto ISD hasn't been as careful at administering corporal punishment as its rhetoric indicates or its official policy prescribes.
"This is not an isolated case," Holden said. "I actually had a student in college a few years ago, her mother had opted out of corporal punishment [but] she got hit, and eight years later this students was still angry about it." Gershoff agrees. She's heard similar stories "many times."
The continued use of corporal punishment troubles the researchers for a number of reasons. "More than 100 countries ban all school corporal punishment, so the U.S. is an outlier," says Holden, who is a founding member of the sensible-sounding U.S. Alliance to End the Hitting of Children. "Only Australia" — which, it seems worth noting, was largely settled by British convicts — "and the U.S. have not had bans on corporal punishment."
The United Nations considers corporal punishment in schools a violation of human rights and called for its abolition in its Convention on the Rights of the Child. The United States, alone among UN member countries, has never ratified the convention.
But never mind international scorn, which, if anything, tends to convince Americans only of their own righteousness. Most self-respecting medical and psychological groups — the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, to name a few — oppose corporal punishment, and research suggests that corporal punishment just doesn't work, at least not if the goal is to improve behavior rather than triggering aggression and long-simmering resentment.
"There are dozens and dozens of studies looking at spanking," Gershoff says. "It's consistently associated with less compliance in the long term, less socially appropriate behavior, more aggression, more mental health problems."
Most of the studies focus on corporal punishment administered by parents, but what's true of moms or dads spanking their offspring would also seem to hold for teachers whacking kids with wooden boards. As Gershoff notes, "Paddles are very big, and kids are often very small." Factor in the disparities in how corporal punishment is administered, with data showing that boys, African Americans and disabled students bear the brunt of physical discipline, and the practice seems not just antiquated but indefensible.
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"There's evidence that anti-paddling sentiment has begun to trickle down to Texas. I think it's on its way out," Gershoff says. "I think a lot of districts are realizing kids will behave better if we don't hit them." The state Legislature has so far resisted the biennial push by state Representative Alma Allen, a Democrat and former elementary school principal from Houston, to ban corporal punishment, but it did, in 2011, require that school districts allow parents to opt out. Previously, under the legal concept of "in loco parentis," schools had all the disciplinary rights of a parent during the school day.
Still, Holden doubts Texas will ban paddling and spanking in schools in the near future. "Public opinion is the problem," he says. "Corporal punishment is deeply entrenched in our country and the belief that parents have that that is an appropriate way to discipline children, which is totally opposite of what the research finds." That's borne out by DeSoto ISD's response to Jalijah's paddling, which it treated as little more than an administrative slip-up. After telling NBC 5 that she had "no excuses for what occurred," assistant superintendent Gabrielle Lemonier said that the solution was not to fire the teacher or stop paddling kids but to provide better training for The Meadows Elementary's teachers and administrators. She described corporal punishment as a "tool."
Changing minds is hard, Holden acknowledges. He thinks publicizing the research about the ineffectiveness of corporal punishment can help. Better is mentoring parents one-on-one, which tends to be more effective than lectures from ivory-tower academics. A change in terminology would also be beneficial. "We call it spanking which normalizes it and makes it acceptable, but if we change our terminology and say 'I was assaulted at school today,'" people would think differently about it.
Gershoff agrees. "If I was hit by a board, I could call police and file for assault." Kids? No such luck.