CASSVILLE, Mo. — A school district in southwest Missouri decided to bring back spanking as a form of discipline for students — if their parents agree — despite warnings from many public health experts that the practice is harmful to students.
Classes resumed Tuesday in the Cassville School District district for the first time since the school board approved in June to reduce corporal punishment in the 1,900 student district, about 100 miles southwest of Springfield. The district had dropped the practice in 2001.
The policy states that corporal punishment will only be applied if other forms of disciplinary action, such as suspensions, have failed and then only with the permission of the inspector.
Superintendent Merlyn Johnson told The Springfield News-Leader that the decision came after an anonymous survey revealed that parents, students and school staff were concerned about student behavior and discipline.
“We have people who really thank us for it,” he said. “Surprisingly, those on social media would probably be appalled to hear us say these things, but the majority of people I’ve encountered have supported me.”
Elder Khristina Harkey told The Associated Press on Friday that she is aware of Cassville’s policies. She and her husband didn’t sign up because her 6-year-old son, Anakin Modine, is autistic and would hit back if he got a beating. But she said corporal punishment worked for her when she was a “troublemaker” during her California school years.
“There are all different kinds of kids,” Harkey said. “Some people need a good butt kick. I was one of them.”
Morgan Craven, national director of policy, advocacy and community engagement at the Intercultural Development Research Association, a national nonprofit for education equality, called corporal punishment an “extremely inappropriate, ineffective practice.”
The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that corporal punishment is constitutional and left it to states to determine their own policies. Craven said 19 states, many in the South, have laws that allow it in schools. The most current data from 2017-18 shows that approximately 70,000 children in the US have hit their school at least once.
Students hit in school don’t do as well academically as their peers and suffer physical and psychological trauma, Craven said. In some cases, children are so injured that they require medical attention.
“If you have a situation where a kid goes to school and they can be beaten for, you know, a minor offense, that certainly creates a very hostile, unpredictable and violent environment,” Craven said. “And that’s not what we want for kids in school.”
But Tess Walters, 54, the guardian of her 8-year-old granddaughter, had no qualms about signing the corporal punishment opt-in papers. She said the possibility of being beaten is a deterrent to her granddaughter, who has Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.
“I’ve been reading some people’s comments on Facebook recently and they’re just going over the top like, ‘Oh, this is abuse, and, oh, you’re just going to threaten them with, you know, violence.’ something like, “What? The kid gets spanked once; it’s not a spanking.” People just go crazy. They’re just ridiculous,” Walters said.
Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer at the American Psychological Association, said decades of research shows that corporal punishment will not reduce inappropriate behavior and is likely to increase aggression, anger and hostility and can lead to depression and self-esteem problems.
Prinstein said better methods for eliminating unwanted behaviors, including problem-solving training; Reward positive behaviour, for example with extra breaks; and give extra attention in the classroom.
“Parents are experts at what works for their own children,” Prinstein said. “But it’s important that parents are educated about very substantial scientific literature that once again demonstrates that corporal punishment is not a consistently effective way to change unwanted behaviors.”
Sarah Font, an associate professor of sociology and public policy at Pennsylvania State University, co-authored a 2016 study on the topic. Her research found that districts that use corporal punishment are generally located in poor, Republican rural areas in Southern states. Font said black children are disproportionately subjected to it.
The inequality frustrates Ellen Reddy of the Nollie Jenkins Family Center, which advocates for issues such as corporal punishment and special education.
“Look at the history of violence against black and brown bodies,” said Reddy, who described herself as a black mother of sons and a grandson. “Since we’ve been in this country, there has been violence against our children, our families, our ancestors. So when are we going to stop that kind of violence?”
Disabled students are also more likely to receive corporal punishment, said Elizabeth Gershoff, a professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. She said that led to four states — Tennessee, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Louisiana — banning the use for those students.
She noted that corporal punishment in general is on the decline, and the number has been declining steadily since the federal government began tracking it in the late 1970s.
“Most schools realize, ‘You know what, we can discipline kids, we can direct their behavior without hitting them,'” says Gershoff, who co-wrote the 2016 study with Font.
Cassville School District spokeswoman Mindi Artherton was out of the office Friday and a woman who answered the phone in her office suggested she read the policy. She said the staff had already conducted interviews. “Right now we will focus on educating our students,” she added, before hanging up.
The policy says that a witness from the district, which is in a province that is approximately 93% white, must be present and the discipline will not be used in front of other students.
“If it is necessary to use corporal punishment, it will be administered in such a way that there is no chance of bodily harm or injury,” the policy says. “Hitting a student on the head or face is not allowed.”
In Missouri, periodic attempts to ban corporal punishment in schools have failed to gain traction in the legislature. The state does not keep track of which districts allow spanking because those decisions are made at the local level, a spokeswoman for Missouri’s K-12 Education Department said.
US Senator Christopher Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, is pushing for a ban on the use of corporal punishment in schools that receive federal funding. He called it a “barbaric practice” that allows teachers and administrators to physically abuse students.
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