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Sandy Banks

Ban of the Paddle Left a Void in Discipline

September 03, 2002|Sandy Banks

The stories must have sounded barbaric to the teenager sitting wide-eyed among adults at the breakfast table:

Thirty-three swats with a wooden paddle for violating the dress code by wearing cuffed pants (a possible hiding place for cigarettes) in junior high.

Being forced to bend over, naked, in front of teammates on the high school football team and take swats from the coach as punishment for a D or F on a report card.

Of being led, in tears, out of algebra class and forced to stand, spread-eagle, against a hallway wall for two swats from a teacher for whispering in class.

Those punishments were meted out decades ago, the first two to classmates of mine, the third to me, when I was in eighth grade. The paddles were heavy and thick, often drilled with holes to cut the drag as they whizzed toward your backside. And swats were the punishment prescribed for everything from skipping class to cutting up in the lunch line.

"They hit you with wooden paddles?" asked the unbelieving teenager at the table, a classmate's son, puzzled by the laughter accompanying our recollections. "That's brutal! Didn't it hurt? Didn't your parents care?"

Yes, it was painful and humiliating. That was the point of it. And if our parents found out that we'd been paddled, we--not the teachers--were likely to face their wrath.

Yet as we reminisced last month at my high school reunion, from the comfortable distance of 30 years, those old-fashioned beatings didn't seem so bad.

Around the table with me sat a minister, a business owner, a college administrator, a couple of teachers. We had all turned out pretty well, despite the "brutal" treatment.

Or maybe because of it, one classmate suggested. Sometimes the fear of physical punishment was the only thing that kept him in line. "I was bad with discipline," he recalled. "I might have been dead without it."

I couldn't help but think of that conversation as I prepared my eighth-grade daughter to join the hundreds of thousands of students starting a new school term in Los Angeles today. Last year was her first in public school, and the biggest revelation--and disappointment--for us both was the lack of respect students showed for their teachers and their school.

It was not uncommon for a child to curse a teacher or refuse to obey even the simplest rule. My daughter saw standoffs in class between teachers and students end with name-calling (by both), threats (by the student) or tears (from the teacher). An entire period could evaporate while a teacher struggled to deal with a recalcitrant child.

The problem is not a new one. For the last 20 years, Americans surveyed on national polls have ranked "lack of discipline" as the most serious problem facing schools today.

Corporal punishment in schools is now, appropriately, considered abuse, and most states have banned its use--as California did in 1986. But there is no quick-fix tool to take its place; nothing to scare the bad actors straight. And sometimes it seems like the "good" kids pay.

Today, school discipline is viewed as part of a larger mission to mold character and promote responsibility. And fear is no longer considered an appropriate motivating tool.

"It's not taking a board and swatting somebody that's going to make a good human being," says Los Angeles School Board member Julie Korenstein. "Discipline has to be part of the whole building of conscience so children will learn to care if they do something that can harm somebody else."

We're more sensitive to children's emotional needs, more aware that a troublemaker is likely a troubled kid, that bad behavior may reflect many things--a cry for attention, a response to family turmoil, a lack of coping skills, frustration over the inability to read.

And our children are growing up in a more aggressive and permissive era, with blurred boundaries and less respect for all authority figures. A generation ago, teachers were like an extension of our parents, and discipline methods relied on that.

Years ago, when Willie Crittendon was an L.A. school principal called upon to discipline a child for using foul language, he would "get that child in my office, call the parent, hand the phone to the student and say, 'Just repeat to your parents what you said in the classroom.' Most of them would be too embarrassed to do it. They knew Mama or Daddy would hit the roof."

Today, parents are as likely to chastise the teacher or principal who disciplines their child than they are to scold the student. "You don't get the support you used to get," says Crittendon, who now heads Los Angeles Unified School District's operations and safety division. "You've got parents coming in saying, 'What did you do to my child?'"

And teachers tell me they sometimes opt to do nothing when a child misbehaves rather than brave the anger of contentious parents or risk the ever-present threat of a call from a lawyer.

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