The internet has gone wild over the past few days with news that Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings is facing child abuse charges after disciplining his 4-year-old son with a switch, and was separately accused of leaving a scar on another 4-year-old son's face. A native of Palestine, Texas, Peterson's charge has spurred an impassioned debate between corporal punishment advocates and fierce opponents. But in nearby DeSoto ISD, the practice is a long-standing tradition, and one that is shied away from public eyes.
Last school year, DeSoto ISD administered corporal punishment 227 times. DISD spokeswoman Beth Trimble points out that some of those kids were repeat offenders, so the actual number of children paddled is unclear. Nevertheless, the incident is indicative of a continuing trend across Texas public schools for corporal punishment. According to Dr. George Holden, a psychologist and family violence researcher at SMU, Texas leads the nation in cases of corporal punishment.
"The most common reason parents approve is that it was done to them as children. They turned out okay, so they do it to their kids. It's an easy technique to use to get immediate behavior change from the child," says Holden. Still, specific data is often unclear for the number of kids physically punished in Texas schools. "It's also something that school districts don't want to advertise or draw attention to," says Holden. "And students are embarrassed."
DeSoto ISD's official policy on corporal punishment breaks down the system, yet the details remain shrouded in ambiguity. The policy applies to all grades, but how many kindergartners are paddled versus high schoolers? Is a paddle used, or a switch, or a hand? Where is the child hit -- the backside, the hand, or the back of the legs? DeSoto ISD officials declined to comment on policy specifics.
- Corporal punishment shall be administered only after less other stringent measures such as counseling, parental conferences, and other forms of discipline have failed to produce the desired results, unless the conduct of a student is of such an extreme nature that corporal punishment is the only reasonable form of discipline under the circumstances.
- Corporal punishment may be administered by the school principal or a designated school official.
- The instrument to be used in administering corporal punishment shall be approved by the principal.
- When corporal punishment is administered it shall be done in the presence of another district professional employee and shall take place in the principal's office or other such place as is out of view of other students.
- A disciplinary record shall be maintained and shall contain the name of the Record the student, the type of misconduct, any previous disciplinary actions, the type of corporal punishment administered, the name of the person administering the punishment, the names of witnesses present, and the date and time of punishment.
"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," DISD Superintendent Dr. David 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."
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But Holden says such arguments are antiquated, and harmful. "More enlightened educators realize it's ineffective and counterproductive," he says. "When you're disciplining a child or student, you want them to change their behavior in the future. So they need to be motivated to change their behavior in the future, and by hitting the child, it's painful and it hurts for perhaps a few minutes, but it doesn't at all affect the way they're going to behave in the future. It makes them angry, and in some cases they want to retaliate. They're humiliated."
Often, like parents, educators will be in favor of corporal punishment because it was used on them as children, and is seen as the appropriate technique to use. But too often, corporal punishment disproportionately affects black children and children with disabilities. "Some educators think that's the way to get through to children with disabilities," says Holden. "And it may be different reasons, but I think [African-American] are more discriminated against. Their parents may also be more apt to give permission to schools to use corporal punishment. And it could be the school personnel are African-American. There is evidence that African-Americans are more in favor of using corporal punishment, both in attitude and reported use."
Holden referred specifically to a number of studies that point to the discrepancy. "Part of it can be educational. Those that have more education are less likely to find corporal punishment acceptable," he says. "There also seems to be more of a tradition for physical punishment in African-American groups, and some would argue that's from slave heritage."
It's not known exactly how -- or for that matter, why -- the district paddles its students, despite the practice's discontinuance in most other north Texas districts. As is typical of districts that have paddle policies, Dallas ISD was reluctant to provide much information. But Holden says the same techniques are generally applied across the state. "Generally it's administered by either the principal or assistant principal and in the witness of someone else," he says. "The child will bend over the table and will be hit with the paddle, usually several times. It's humiliating and embarrassing, and it's intended to be painful. From what I've seen and heard, they put their weight into it."