The official policies of local schools are split on the question of allowing corporal punishment of students, but in practice, many school administrators say spanking and paddling are on the decline.
Tennessee law authorizes any teacher or principal in the state to administer corporal punishment, but gives local districts control over when or if to use it. School board-approved policies for four school districts in Northeast Tennessee — Johnson City, Kingsport, Bristol and Sullivan County — do not allow corporal punishment.
Their schools rely only on detention, suspension and expulsion to correct misconduct.
Four others, Elizabethton City and Washington, Unicoi and Johnson counties, allow the use of spanking or paddling as a means of discipline, but there are telling differences among the districts’ disciplinary policies that reflect the philosophies of school boards over the years.
In Unicoi County, school board policy separates corporal punishment from a teacher’s right to self-defense.
“Self-defense may take whatever form is necessary and appropriate,” the policy states, before giving school staff members the ability to use physical force to seat or separate students involved in a fight.
Johnson County schools require parents or guardians to provide doctors’ notes to school principals if there’s a medical reason that their children shouldn’t be spanked or paddled.
The district also provides permission forms each school year asking parents whether corporal punishment is allowed.
Carter County Board of Education policy doesn’t mandate the use of permission forms, but states that parents can submit written requests to principals, assistant principals or teachers to ask that corporal punishment not be administered to their children.
“Alternative methods of discipline may be utilized and may include requesting that the parent/guardian pick up the student at school,” the policy said.
Interestingly, the current edition of Carter County’s disciplinary policy, written and approved in 2009, removed a section of the previous policy that allowed age, sex, size and physical and emotional condition of the child to be used to determine the use and degree of corporal punishment.
In Elizabethton City Schools, corporal punishment is limited by district policy to spanking or paddling. It’s also written that, “In no instance shall it be of such severity as to cause bodily injury,” a stipulation not spelled out by the other districts nearby.
“The state law allows it, so it can be utilized to punish a child, but I discourage the principals from using it because it could open them up to liability,” Ed Alexander, Elizabethton’s director of schools, said Friday. “In some cases it could be used to motivate good behavior and discourage bad, but our principals rarely use it.”
Alexander started as a teacher, then became a principal before moving up to district head, said he did spank students in his 38-year career.
“I’ve administered corporal punishment, albeit reluctantly,” he said. “For example, the idea of using it in the case of a student who got into a fight, if you’re striking someone who has been beating another person for punishment, it’s diametrically opposed to reason.”
Some principals in Elizabethton do still spank children, Alexander said, but only when all other attempts at discipline have failed and usually after contacting the students’ parents.
“Any time a parent requests that a child not be spanked, it will never occur,” he said. “That’s like a parent saying to us that if it happens, there will be a follow-up and there will be litigation.”
Although the director said corporal punishment in Elizabethton schools was slowly falling into disfavor and called the practice a “dinosaur,” Alexander said there are not currently any plans to change the district’s disciplinary policies.
Like in Elizabethton, Washington County Assistant Director of Schools for Attendance and Discipline James Murphy said corporal punishment is allowed, but “strongly discouraged” in the county’s schools.
“The principals have it at their discretion,” Murphy said. “We have one or two who will occasionally use it, but they use it very sparingly and usually at the request of the parent.”
Sometimes, he said, a parent will request to administer the punishment herself at the school.
Murphy said most of the district’s spankings occur at the middle school grade levels, never in high school.
“Out of the number of disciplinary actions taken in the county last year, .016 percent were corporal punishment,” Murphy said. “It’s extremely rare, and in most cases is the principal following the direction of the parent.”
Murphy didn’t say how many students that figure represented, or how many total disciplinary actions were taken last year.
But data from a survey conducted in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights helps to better illustrate corporal punishment’s use in Washington County.
The Civil Rights Data Collection survey performed by the agency randomly sampled school districts across the country that year, asking their administrators for information about the enrollment and demographic statistics in their schools and about programs, services and policies.
According to the survey, in Washington County in that school year, corporal punishment was administered to 115 students. All of the students receiving corporal punishment were white, and nearly 85 percent were males.
With enrollment at 9,355 students that year, that means that 1.2 percent of the district’s students were spanked or paddled.
By comparison, 210 of Carter County’s 5,900 students, or 3.6 percent, were given corporal punishment, according to the survey. Again, all of the students were white, and nearly 80 percent were males.
Murphy said the trend over the years has been away from using corporal punishment.
“There was a time when the school paralleled the home, moreso than in today’s society,” he said. “But in a rural setting, parents still tend to accept corporal punishment more, because they still use it at home, the families believe that children need to have paddlings, spankings and switchings.
“There is a school of belief that if the nation doesn’t punish children using corporal punishment, it creates a softer society,” he continued. “But you see a lot of doctors and pediatricians who stand against it. I personally wouldn’t want to send my child to school to be spanked, and when parents feel that way we respect it.”
The Johnson City Board of Education wrote corporal punishment out of the district’s policy in the 1990s, district Director of Instruction and Communication Debra Bentley said.
Bentley was principal at Mountain View Elementary in 1995 when the board banned the practice.
“It’s just not appropriate; it’s not supported as a means of disciplining students and gaining compliance,” she said. “We’re teaching children that just because I’m bigger and stronger than you, I can make you do things based on the use of force.”
Even before the district changed the policy, Bentley said she instructed her staff at Keystone school to not spank the children.
“I really think even for year before it was banned, it was rarely used in Johnson City schools at all,” she said. “We were on the forefront in the region to say that this is not appropriate.”
Bentley was surprised to learn that some of the schools in the area still employ corporal punishment.
“I don’t know why schools would continue to allow it,” she said. “There has been enough media over the years where teachers and administrators were abusing that right and physically injuring students that to think that this is still an acceptable action in a public school is shocking to me.”
Bentley said the district’s current disciplinary policies successfully use detention, suspension and expulsion to control student behavior.
“It’s been working here for more than 20 years,” she said. “Modern scientific studies show that corporal punishment is just wrong for students.”