Monday, January 5, 2009

School House or Mad House: Reconsidering Corporal Punishment

Educators and other school officials have a non-negotiable obligation to maintain a safe school in which those who want to can learn. This is an irreducible minimum which must take precedence over well-intentioned efforts at social reclamation, racial pride building, AIDS prevention, or whatever.

This means that serious disruptions, bullying, extortion, and predation, must not be tolerated under any circumstances. If this can be accomplished without administering corporal punishment, so much the better. After all, the physical punishment of children has weighty opposition. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and the National Association of Social Workers all oppose or strongly discourage corporal punishment of children and the United Nations has initiated a world-wide program to eliminate it.

But what if educators with thirty plus impoverished kids per class do not command the resources necessary to maintain order without this option? For 6000 years such punishment was readily, available. Make other kid's lives miserable or learning impossible and it would cost you a red behind. These days, most school districts, even entire states have ruled this consequence out.

What has taken its place? Sermonettes, ineffectual detentions, forced transfers, or trying to teach the malefactors conflict resolution techniques. Unfortunately, the recipients of these remedies typically continue to lay waste to everyone's safety and learning.

Suspension is the worst that usually happens to school kids who specialize in making other people's lives insufferable. For many kids this sanction is a joke — time off to run the streets. With corporal punishment banned by people who escape the price of its banning, school officials command few if any sanctions that impress hooligans. As one young hoodlum assured a more novice delinquent in the presence of a Philadelphia teacher friend of mine, "Don't worry, they can't do shit to you here."

Sure, corporal punishment might well damage children thus corrected. It also might encourage them to think that might makes right or that violence is the best way to resolve conflicts. (They probably think that anyway.) But even if it always damages aggressors in one way or another, that, by itself, is not decisive until the rights and safety of others have been factored in.

Put simply, educators absolutely must nor forget about the rights of victims. Children who are being subjected to merciless bullying, for example. Don't they have rights and feelings? Remember, children are compelled to attend school by force of law, and that means that they have an absolute right to safety once they are there.

Teachers have similar rights. They must be free of the threats and assaults of disturbed or malevolent youngsters; and sociopaths, whatever the origins of their behavior, must not be permitted to destroy lessons much less the peace and happiness of others. And for this to happen, school officials must command meaningful sanctions that tough kids respect.

In the best of all possible worlds, corporal punishment would never have to be inflicted on anyone for any reason. And much can and should still be done to make schooling more palatable and more effective for a broader range of kids. This would reduce misbehavior. But the world is far from perfect, school resources are strictly limited, order is absolutely necessary for reforms to take hold and the right of the innocent to safety and security must take precedence. Meaningful penalties, then, still are required.

Is corporal punishment the answer? Is it the only practical way to make inner-city schools safe places where kids can learn. If so, it must be scrupulously fair and carefully controlled or abuse is guaranteed. But let's reiterate the main point. Without meaningful sanctions of some sort incivility and social predation simply take over.

It is sadly certain that present day sanctions are so weak that they insure that good kids, kids who want to learn, are being compelled to attend mad houses rather than school houses.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at

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