A school district in southwest Missouri is bringing back a measure it last resorted to more than 20 years ago to address disciplinary issues: beating students.
Classes began Monday for the 1,900 students in the Cassville R-IV School District, about an hour west of Branson and about 24 miles from the Arkansas border. During open house, families were informed that the school board had adopted a policy in June allowing “the use of physical violence as a method of correcting student behavior.” Parents were given forms to indicate whether they allow the school to use a paddle on their child, the Springfield News-Leader reported.
Formally known as corporal punishment, the disciplinary action usually involves beating students on the buttocks with a wooden paddle. In Cassville, under the new policy, employees will use “reasonable physical force” — without a “potential for bodily harm or injury” — in the presence of a witness. A teacher or principal must also send a report to the inspector explaining the reasoning behind the punishment.
What exactly “reasonable physical violence” is is unclear. Chief Inspector Merlyn Johnson turned down an interview request from The Washington Post, saying, “Right now, we will focus on educating our students.” However, he told the News-Leader that younger students could get one or two paddle swings, while older students could get up to three. Parents, Johnson said, had thanked the district for approving the practice that has largely fallen into disrepair across the country.
“Parents have said ‘why can’t you paddle my student?’ and we’re like, ‘We can’t paddle your student, our policy doesn’t support that,'” Johnson told the outlet. “There had been a conversation with parents and there were requests from parents for us to look at it.”
Corporal punishment is not new in American schools. For centuries, students have been flogged or beaten by rulers and paddles. In 1867, New Jersey became the first state to ban the practice in public schools, but it took more than 100 years for other states to follow suit. Still, a 1977 Supreme Court decision — Ingraham v. Wright — considered corporal punishment in public schools constitutional and left it to the states to decide what to do.
The punishment is still legal in public schools in 19 states, including Missouri. Almost all states — except New Jersey and Iowa — also allow it in private schools.
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Groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Psychological Association have warned that corporal punishment can cause academic, emotional and behavioral problems. A 2016 study from the Journal of Family Psychology found that hitting increased the risk of aggression and antisocial behavior.
The United Nations considers corporal punishment a violation of human rights. The International Organization’s Convention on the Rights of the Child urges countries to ban this practice.
“In any other context, the act of an adult hitting another person with a plank … would be considered assault with a weapon and punishable under criminal law,” researchers Elizabeth T. Gershoff and Sarah A. Font wrote of corporal punishment. in a 2016 study.
The Government Accountability Office says the number of American students receiving corporal punishment is “significantly understated.” The Department of Education’s Bureau of Civil Rights, which collects data on the practice, last reported figures for the 2017-2018 school year. That data shows that more than 69,000 were beaten at school across the country. Mississippi had the highest percentage, with more than 20,000 students, according to the office, followed by Texas with nearly 14,000 and Alabama with more than 9,000. Nearly 2,500 were sentenced in Missouri.
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How the measure returned to Cassville after it had been dormant since 2001 began with an anonymous survey sent to parents, students and employees in May, Johnson, the superintendent, told KY3.
“One of the suggestions that came up was concerns about the discipline of the students,” he told the station. “So we responded by implementing various strategies, including corporal punishment.”
Johnson said the disciplinary action will only be used as a last resort when punishments such as suspensions or detentions do not work.
“We love the positive reinforcement. That works for a lot of kids,” Johnson told News-Leader. “But some kids play the game and their behavior doesn’t change.”
Some parents are not happy. Miranda Waltrip, who has three children in the district, said she was shocked by the policy, which she called inappropriate, OzarksFirst.com reported.
“We live in a very small community where people have been raised a certain way and they’re kind of covered in the fact that they’ve grown up with discipline and slapping,” Waltrip told the outlet. “And so for them it’s like going back to the good old days, but it’s not because it’s going to do more harm than good in the end.”