The hand, the strap, or the paddle?
Choosing the preferred instrument of pain as well as number of strokes against the bottoms of unruly public school students remains legal in Arkansas, and twenty-one other states.
“My understanding is that it’s typically a wooden paddle,” says Kristen Garner, staff attorney for Arkansas School Boards Association. She monitors public school discipline practices. “The most prevalent is to be spanked on the rear end.”
Which is how Berryville Public Schools, in eastern Carroll County does it, says Superintendent Owen Powell, before a recent school board meeting.
“Corporal punishment is part of our school policy,” he says. “But it’s an option. We don’t force students or parents to submit to it.”
Berryville students cited with an infraction are sent to the principal’s office where they are given a pink slip to take home, listing disciplinary choices: in-school-suspension where students are sequestered for several days, out of school suspension, or corporal punishment.
“The parent will have to circle which one they want and sign off for approval,” he says.
Students then bring the pink slip back to the main office. If they opt to be spanked, their school principle doles it out.
Arkansas school districts that practice corporal punishment must comply with Arkansas code which grants broad authority to physically strike children as well as immunity needed to defuse liability.
But each districts in Arkansas sets and publishes disciplinary policies, and must log any actions--spankings, suspensions and expulsions--with the Arkansas Department of Education.
Alternative disciplinary practices may range from teacher/student or parent/teacher meetings, school counseling, deprivation of privileges, alternative school programming and Saturday detention.
Data on discipline rates in Berryville School District, located in eastern Carroll County, which is 25 percent English proficient and 74 percent low income, shows an increase in corporal punishment from 139 cases in 2013, to 229 so far this year. In contrast, Jonesboro Public Schools counts 372, Texarkana 64, and Pine Bluff 51 cases.
Fayetteville School District spokesperson Alan Wilbourn says his administration has not spanked a student for more than 20 years. And Pamela Smith with the Little Rock School District says her district prohibits it as well. But Berryville School District Superintendent Owen Powell says a majority of his parents choose corporal punishment over other measures.
“It’s very much accepted in our community in Berryville,” he says. “When we ask parents if you want your child to spend three days in in-school-suspension or have corporal punishment, three swats, overwhelmingly they choose corporal punishment.”
But school spankings may in the near future become old school. Since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld disciplinary corporal punishment school policies in the 1970s allowing states to enact rules, 28 have since barred it.
Lacie Ketelhut is program coordinator for the Gunderson Center for Effective Discipline headquartered in La Crosse Wisconsin.
“A national ban on corporal punishment in all schools would really be the most comprehensive way towards ending this practice,” she says, “which would promote the use of positive behavior intervention.”
Evidence-based positive behavior intervention may include applied behavioral therapy and positive reinforcement which rewards good behavior.
The Gunderson Center website posts anonymous testimony from students subjected to corporal punishment, who describe feeling humiliated and fearful. Lacie Ketelhut says data show that corporal punishment tends to occur more frequently among children with disabilities, as well as minorities.
“The U.S. Dept of Education Civil Rights data on corporal punishment shows that between 2013 and 2014, African American students comprised 16 percent of the all U.S. students,” she says. “Yet they received about a third of all corporal punishment doled out.”
It’s legal in Arkansas to physically discipline students with disabilities with behavioral issues. They are subject to normal school disciplinary regulations but any discipline must be evaluated under their Individual Education Plans, mandated according to federal Individuals With Disabilities Act rules. It's considered discrimination, however, if a student is disciplined for something considered a manifestation of their disability.
But any physical discipline, Lacy Kettelhut insists is inappropriate and ineffective in changing disruptive student behavior.
“We know it affects the learning environment of the entire school,” she says, “and there are health risks, long term, including an increase in certain social behavior, aggression, defiance, and anti-social skills.”
Lacie Ketelhut points to results from a new meta-study, published in the April 2016 issue of the Journal of Family Psychology which found no evidence that spanking improves child behavior and that physical discipline may have detrimental outcomes.
Arkansas School Boards Association staff attorney Kristen Garner warns corporal punishment cannot be excessive, and must be witnessed. And individuals in districts that practice it, she says, are exposing themselves to civil lawsuits.
But Berryville School Superintendent Owen Powell says Arkansas school districts have a federal right to public school disciplinary choices.
“It goes back to local control, what is accepted in your community, by both parents and students."