Paddlings, swats, licks. A quarter of a million schoolchildren got them last year - and blacks, American Indians and children with disabilities got a disproportionate share of the punishment, according to a study by a human rights group.
Even little children can be paddled. Heather Porter, who lives in Crockett, Texas, was startled to hear her little boy, then 3, say he’d been spanked at school. Mrs. Porter was never told, despite a policy at the public preschool that parents be notified.
“We were pretty ticked off, to say the least. The reason he got paddled was because he was untying his shoes and playing with the air conditioner thermostat,” Mrs. Porter said. “He was being a 3-year-old.”
For the study released Wednesday, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union used Education Department data to show that, while paddling has been declining, racial disparity persists. Researchers also interviewed students, parents and school personnel in Texas and Mississippi - states that account for 40 percent of the 223,190 children who were paddled at least once in the 2006-2007 school year.
Mrs. Porter could have filled out a form telling the school not to paddle her son, if only she had realized he might be paddled. Yet many parents find that such forms are ignored, the study said.
Widespread paddling can make it unlikely that forms will be checked. A teacher interviewed by Human Rights Watch, Tiffany Bartlett, said that when she taught in the Mississippi Delta, the policy was to lock the classroom doors when the bell rang, leaving stragglers to be paddled by an administrator patrolling the hallways. Ms. Bartlett now is a school teacher in Austin, Texas.
And even if schools make a mistake, they are unlikely to face lawsuits. In places where corporal punishment is allowed, teachers and principals generally have legal immunity from assault laws, the study said.
“One of the things we’ve seen over and over again is that parents have difficulty getting redress, if a child is paddled and severely injured, or paddled in violation of parents’ wishes,” said Alice Farmer, the study’s author.
A majority of states have outlawed it, but corporal punishment remains widespread across the South. Behind Texas and Mississippi were Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Florida and Missouri.
Black students are more than twice as likely to be paddled. The disparity persists even in places with large black populations, the study found. Similarly, American Indians were more than twice as likely to be paddled, the study found.
The study also found:
cIn states where paddling is most common, black girls were paddled more than twice as often as white girls.
cBoys are three times as likely to be paddled as girls.
cSpecial-education children were more likely to be paddled.
More than 100 countries worldwide have banned paddling in schools, including all of Europe, Ms. Farmer said.
“International human rights law puts a pretty strong prohibition on corporal punishment,” she said.
It’s not an easy choice. In many schools, children can avoid a paddling if they accept suspension or detention, or for younger pupils, if they skip recess.
But often, a child opts for the short-term sting of the paddle. And sometimes teachers don’t have the option of after-school detention, because there are no buses to take children home later.
During the three years Evan Couzo taught in the Mississippi Delta, he refused to paddle pupils, offering detention instead. But others - teachers, parents, even children - were accustomed to paddling.
“Just about everyone at the beginning of the year said, ‘If he or she gives you any trouble, you can paddle them. You can send them home, and I’ll paddle them. Or you can have me come out to the school, and we can both paddle them.’
“It’s really just a part of the culture of the school environment there,” he said.