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Paddling of schoolchildren needs to end

by David Kirp

Multiple choice question: In 20 states it's legal to hit (1) an animal, (2) a prisoner, (3) a soldier or (4) a schoolchild. The right answer is - astonishingly - No. 4.

Keep your hands off Fido, the law says, and don't manhandle convicts, but from Florida to Wyoming (but not, thank goodness, in California), teachers and administrators are authorized to paddle students. They do so with gusto. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2006-7, the last school year for which national statistics are available, 220,517 students, some as young as kindergartners, suffered some form of corporal punishment. The schools' “justifications” included acting out, being late to class, wearing “suggestive” clothing - even flunking a test.

Pickpockets get due process, but not these students, who for the most part are at the un-tender mercy of their teachers. What's more, the punishment that's meted out is often no love pat. Photos of bruised and bleeding buttocks, posted on the Internet by an advocacy group called Unlimited Justice, tell the tale: in 2006-7, 20,000 youngsters needed medical attention after being hit by rulers, belts and paddles, slammed against walls or knocked to the floor.

Parents who behaved this way would be judged abusive and might well lose their children, but at present there's no effective recourse against teachers and principals.

The rationale for paddling comes straight from the Biblical injunction to spare the rod and spoil the child. But the author of that particular proverb didn't know a thing about child development, for there's no evidence that kids turn into angels once they've been hit. The Arkansas statute justifies paddling “to maintain discipline and order,” but these youngsters - many of whom are poor and nonwhite - are more likely to become alienated and aggressive, drop out of school and head down the path to failure.

No other Western democracy - not even Iran, for that matter - tolerates the paddling of schoolchildren. Forty years ago, theSupreme Court found it necessary to confirm the obvious, that students are “persons under our Constitution.” They have the legal right to wear armbands protesting the Vietnam War, the justices ruled, later adding that students are entitled to some form of hearing before being suspended. Surely children's civil rights include being protected against being paddled.

What's needed now is a damningly graphic report by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission that exposes a practice few people know about. A civil rights lawsuit demanding that school officials who spank children pay damages out of their own pockets would get school officials' attention; and a victory in court would go a long way toward ending this ugly anachronism.

David L. Kirp, professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, is the author of “Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children's Lives and America's Future.” This article was originally posted on SF Gate.