October 1st, 2010

Legislation proposed to ban corporal punishment in schools

For some of us, corporal punishment brings to mind school days of old, with nuns rapping across the knuckles of the disobedient. Though corporal punishment is no longer used in New England schools (Connecticut, the last of the New England states to ban it, did so in 1989), it still is allowed in 20 states – though a bill introduced in late June by Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) would eliminate it in U.S. schools entirely.

Critics of corporal punishment have long argued that it doesn’t work, citing research that suggests it impairs academic performance and is even linked to higher dropout rates. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, African-American children and students with disabilities experience corporal punishment at disproportionate rates. Although African Americans make up around 17 percent of public school students, they accounted for nearly 36 percent of those who were paddled during the 2006-2007 school year, the most recent year for which such figures are available. While students with disabilities made up 13.7 percent of all public school students, they accounted for 18.8 percent of those subjected to corporal punishment.

Murray Straus, Ph.D., a sociology professor and co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire who has researched corporal punishment since 1969, says use of force by an authority figure legitimizes violence. “It establishes that it’s morally right to hit,” he says. Kids may learn that if they are unable to reason with others through words, using force is warranted.

“They see that teachers and principals are hitting, so it must be a good thing,” he says. “When [kids] encounter misbehavior on the part of others, they may be more likely to correct it by violence.”

In a book called “Beating the Devil Out of Them,” originally published in 1994, Straus cites findings linking the amount of corporal punishment allowed in schools to the number of assaults instigated by students and even to states’ murder rates. (The more hitting that’s sanctioned in a state, in other words, the higher that state’s murder rate).

“With research like this, you can’t nail down cause,” Straus says. “It reflects two processes. States that are prone to violence are also states that will use it in schools. It’s belief in the efficacy of using physical force to obtain good things that underlies corporal punishment in schools, children’s use of violence and homicide.”

Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., director of Yale University’s Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic and author of “The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child,” says punishment – whether physical or otherwise – is ineffective at eliciting the sort of behavior parents and teachers want.

“It makes no difference whether it’s administered in home or at school,” he says. “From the standpoint of consequences, vast research shows punishment doesn’t change behavior.”

Kazdin prefers using verbal and non-verbal praise to reinforce desired behaviors. Yet for teachers who may see students for 45 minutes a day – and then never again once the school year ends – punishment may be seen as more expedient.

“In most schools, it’s a tennis-ball machine,” Kazdin says of students flowing in and out of teachers’ classrooms. “It’s the teacher’s plight… Teachers have to get through today. If they can do something that will momentarily suppress someone’s behavior until they’re off [the teacher's] screen, they’ll do it.”

No action has been taken on the corporal punishment bill yet, a spokesperson for Rep. McCarthy said. The bill has the support of many groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and more than 80 education and child advocate organizations.

The American Psychological Association, which has not weighed in on the bill, opposes the use of corporal punishment in schools, saying it “tends to reduce the likelihood of employing more effective, humane and creative ways of interacting with children.”

Most of the 20 states in which corporal punishment is still allowed are in the south. Japan, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and almost all of Europe are among the countries that have outlawed corporal punishment in schools.

If the ban passes in the U.S., teachers should be given new skills for interacting with students, Kazdin says.

“Every legislation has to be two-fold: Take away something harmful, but replace it with something helpful,” he says.

The skills could come from training, but “not workshops where everyone sits down and listens, but actual skills [teachers] can practice and use.”

By Ami Albernaz

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