Corporal Punishment in Schools Still a Reality

A video of a Mississippi basketball coach whipping a player has reignited the debate over corporal punishment in schools.

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Did you see the video of a high school basketball coach whipping a player that went viral recently and spawned a mass of outraged viewers? Murrah High School's Marlon Dorsey admitted to "paddling" his students -- even though corporal punishment has been banned in Mississippi's Jackson Public Schools since 1991 -- stating in a letter that he "took it upon [himself] to save these young men."

Placed on leave with pay, Dorsey has swept corporal punishment back into the news, right after Joe and Katherine Jackson reignited the debate in an interview with Oprah Winfrey. The incident in Mississippi reminds us that some states actually allow corporal punishment in schools, and it's difficult to determine the bigger shock in that regard. Is it that 20 states still believe it's OK for school faculty members to spank students? Or is it that some states don't require parental consent or notification for children to be physically punished at school?

If you think those two things are bad, there's actually a third choice for what's worse: Some states have "teacher immunity laws" to protect employees from criminal or civil action. The list includes a who's who of the Confederacy: Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas. Dorsey, however, picked the wrong school district to work in. Unlike Jackson, most of Mississippi's 152 school districts allow corporal punishment, and would have offered him a measure of protection against a lawsuit that three of his players filed against him Nov. 9.

Something is wrong with this picture, just like the image of Dorsey wailing on a bent-over player's behind with a weight lifting belt. Dorsey is black, but maybe that old, antebellum culture got the best of him. According to a report from the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, corporal punishment is employed most frequently in the aforementioned states as well as Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas.

And can you guess which group of students is disproportionately subjected to paddling? That's right -- African Americans. A 2008 joint report by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, titled "A Violent Education," found that blacks made up 17 percent of the nationwide student population in the 2006-2007 school year but nearly 36 percent of those paddled in schools. Black girls were physically punished at more than twice the rate of white girls. Special-education students -- students with mental or physical disabilities -- also suffered disproportionately.

Look, I'm among the parents who believe in spanking as a viable option in raising children. And while select neighbors and other non-family members in the black community might have had carte blanche to spank children back in the day (which would usually lead to another spanking at home), I don't believe it's appropriate in today's society. I certainly don't believe we should trust school administrators to make fair and impartial decisions on who deserves paddling, how long, how hard and so on.

Even though parents in some states "opt in" to corporal punishment, if they're given a choice, it's time for the practice to end. School hallways shouldn't ring with the whacks administered to approximately 200,000 students each year. The threat and application of corporal punishment taints the entire student population and school environment, whether or not some students' parents had the good sense to opt out. Determining that it's wrong for school officials to hit students shouldn't be that difficult, but the U.S. is one of the few industrialized nations that haven't reached that conclusion.

Perhaps we'll come to our senses soon. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) has sponsored the "Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act," which would ban corporal punishment in all public and private schools that receive federal assistance. If a school wants to continue whacking students, fine; but it would have to operate without any federal funds.

McCarthy says that the elimination of corporal punishment in schools will create safer and more conducive atmospheres that "foster students' growth and dignity." Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), a co-sponsor, sees the matter as an issue of equality, too. "The fact that schools are applying school discipline policies in a discriminatory manner based on race, color, national origin, disability or gender constitutes a civil rights violation and is wrong," he says.

Take another look at the video of Dorsey whipping that player. Yes, it's outrageous. But a greater outrage is that it's sanctioned in 20 states. It's time for that to cease and desist.

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM