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Racial disparity found in school paddlings

Researchers say practice common in Southern states

By Libby Quaid
Associated Press / August 20, 2008
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WASHINGTON - Paddlings, swats, licks. A quarter of a million schoolchildren got them in 2006-2007 - and blacks, American Indians, and children with disabilities got a disproportionate share of the punishment, according to a study.

Even small children can be paddled. Heather Porter, who lives in Crockett, Texas, was startled to hear her son, then 3, say that he had been spanked at school. Porter was never told, despite a policy at the public preschool that parents be notified.

"We were pretty ticked off, to say the least. The reason he got paddled was because he was untying his shoes and playing with the air conditioner thermostat," Porter said. "He was being a 3-year-old."

For the study, which was being released today, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union used Education Department data to show that, while paddling has been declining, racial disparity persists.

Researchers also interviewed students, parents, and school personnel in Texas and Mississippi, states that account for 40 percent of the 223,190 children who were paddled at least once in the 2006-2007 school year.

Porter could have filled out a form telling the school not to paddle her son, if she had realized he might be paddled. Yet many parents find that such forms are ignored, the study said.

Widespread paddling can make it unlikely that forms will be checked.

A majority of states have outlawed it, but corporal punishment remains widespread across the South.

Behind Texas and Mississippi were Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Florida, and Missouri.

A teacher interviewed by Human Rights Watch, Tiffany Bartlett, said that when she taught in the Mississippi Delta, the policy was to lock the classroom doors when the bell rang, leaving stragglers to be paddled by an administrator patrolling the hallways. Bartlett now is a school teacher in Austin.

And even if schools make a mistake, they are unlikely to face lawsuits. In places where corporal punishment is allowed, teachers and principals generally have legal immunity from assault laws, the study said.

"One of the things we've seen over and over again is that parents have difficulty getting redress, if a child is paddled and severely injured, or paddled in violation of parents' wishes," said Alice Farmer, the study's author.

The study found:

  • African American students are more than twice as likely to be paddled. The disparity persists even in places with large black populations, the study found. Similarly, Native Americans were more than twice as likely to be paddled, the study found.

  • In states where paddling is most common, black girls were paddled more than twice as often as white girls.

  • Boys are three times as likely to be paddled as girls.

  • Special education students were more likely to be paddled.

    More than 100 countries worldwide have banned paddling in schools, including all of Europe, Farmer said. "International human rights law puts a pretty strong prohibition on corporal punishment," she said.

    In many American schools that allow corporal punishment, youths can avoid a paddling if they accept suspension or detention, or for younger children, if they skip recess. But often, a child opts for the short-term sting of the paddle.

    And sometimes teachers don't have the option of after-school detention, because there are no buses to take students home later.

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