Tom Vitaglione: Another Robeson hardship is spanking in school

September 19, 2013 

Another Robeson hardship: spanking in schools

A Sept. 15 news article noted that Robeson County has the highest violent crime rate in the state. The article also highlighted the N.C. Rural Academic Center for Excellence in Youth Violence Prevention at UNC-Chapel Hill, known as ACE, which has received a $6.5 million federal grant to implement an intervention project with middle school students in the hopes of reducing violence.

As the article noted, the high rate of poverty, the low rate of educational achievement and the influence of the I-95 drugs/guns pipeline contribute to violent crime. It will take a monumental effort to overcome those obstacles.

Curiously, the article did not mention another factor that certainly contributes: Robeson County schools have also been the state’s leader in corporal punishment. During the 2012-2013 school year, corporal punishment was administered 184 times in public schools statewide. Robeson accounted for 141 (76 percent)!

Because corporal punishment in Robeson County was used more frequently in past years and because it’s mostly used on elementary students, this means the middle-schoolers ACE is working with have had a long exposure to publicly sanctioned violence, either as direct recipients or as classmates who fear their turn is next.

State law defines corporal punishment as “the deliberate infliction of pain on a student” with no parameters except that “medical care beyond first aid should not be required.” It is done in a ritualistic fashion in a separate room where the young student is alone with two adults. It is no surprise that for most students this is a traumatic event.

While the negative effects are intuitive, research (sponsored by the same federal agency that funds ACE) confirms that “adverse childhood experiences” are associated with higher rates of smoking, alcohol, illicit drug use, pregnancy, depression and violence in both adolescence and adulthood.

Fortunately, there are now interventions that show great promise in ameliorating the effects of adverse childhood experiences before later tragic events occur. While corporal punishment in the schools alone may not lead to later negative outcomes, it certainly adds to the burdens that many children in Robeson must endure.

It makes sense to simply stop the practice. It has never been shown to improve academic achievement. In fact, even as the use of corporal punishment both in Robeson and the state has declined in the past decade, end-of-grade scores and graduation rates have improved.

And there are other systems of discipline that have proven effective in modifying behavior while improving academic outcomes. Positive Behavior Intervention and Support has been endorsed by the State Board of Education and has been implemented in more than 800 schools statewide.

With only six districts using corporal punishment in the 2012-2013 school year, it is clear that Robeson is growing increasingly out of step with the educational community. We hope the board will agree that local school officials need to be the nurturers they were trained to be and not the feared punishers they have inadvertently become.

Tom Vitaglione

Senior Fellow, Action for Children North Carolina


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