Spare the rod, group urges

Schools asked to report discipline

Staff WriterApril 29, 2008 

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North Carolina is one of 21 states that allows corporal punishment in public schools, but state education officials don't monitor these punishments closely enough, a child advocacy group said in a report it released today.

Teaming with UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work students, Action for Children surveyed all 115 of the state's school districts, finding 60 still permit corporal punishment. Those that do include Johnston, Franklin, Harnett and Nash-Rocky Mount. Corporal punishment bans are in effect in 55 school districts, including Wake, Durham, Orange and Chatham counties and most of the state's major metropolitan counties.

A statewide ban failed in the legislature by 16 votes last year, meaning it can't come up again until 2009. But in the meantime, Action for Children is working with a legislative commission to get a bill introduced in May that would require districts to report instances of corporal punishment to the State Board of Education.

Besides greater oversight, the North Carolina nonprofit agency also wants the state to adopt more clearly defined standards for acceptable corporal punishment. The group has recommended allowing only trained staff of the same sex as the student to administer punishment with "the use of the hand on the buttocks (spanking) to avoid injuries inherent in the use of the paddle."

"There are some folks that would think it inappropriate for a man to have his hand on the butt of a girl," said Tom Vitaglione, the senior fellow of Action for Children who led the analysis.

Wayne Doll, a Nash-Rocky Mount school administrator, said he knows corporal punishment can be appropriately administered as an effective deterrent of disciplinary problems. In his garage, he still keeps "Mr. Wood," the thin wooden paddle he used during his 15 years as principal of a middle school -- to give three licks to the behinds of misbehaving students.

"I never used the hand," he said. "I would think the hand would leave a mark."

Doll said he knows of maybe one principal in the school district who still sparingly uses such methods. But that principal has been around for 40 years and knows the students' parents and parents' parents, he said.

"He's part of the family," Doll said. "And when you're part of the family, they expect you to do some of those things."

It's not an approach Doll recommends to newer principals even though the district still allows staff members to paddle students with parents' permission.

"Now, there's a whole lot more interventions to use," Doll said. "And of course, there's a lot more lawyers out there today that sometimes such things aren't worth it."

Anthony Parker, Johnston County superintendent, said even though his district's policy still allows for corporal punishment, it's not being used. The board simply hasn't gotten around to changing the policy, he said.

"We have discouraged the use of physical punishment of children," Parker said. "We don't think that's the right thing to do nor would we condone it at all."

Howard Lee, SBOE chairman, knows officials in many school districts also discourage physical punishment of students even though they don't have a formal ban. The problem with not having a ban, though, is that a "renegade teacher" may choose to punish a student anyway go too far, he said.

"There's no option to tell the teacher that he or she was wrong," said Lee, who as a state senator in the 1990s introduced a bill that first gave local districts the right to ban corporal punishment.

State law excuses educators from liability for using "reasonable force" to control or discipline students.

That disturbs Johnston County parent Michelle Woodard, who said her daughter was shaken violently by a Riverwood Elementary kindergarten teacher. Another parent sued that teacher for allegedly banging a child's head into a wall, Woodard said. The teacher was arrested for "assault on a child" and resigned this school year. But a judge dismissed the case in court.

"The family has to prove that unreasonable methods were used," Vitaglione said. "And they have to go through all the contortions of the process."

peggy.lim@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-5799

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