In Memphis, a Battle Won, the Paddle Lost

Times Staff Writer

The Memphis City School Board has voted to ban corporal punishment in the public schools, forcing teachers to replace the traditional wood paddle with tools like mental health support, problem-solving teams and more recognition for students who perform well.

The 5-4 vote late Monday ends years of debate over paddling in Memphis, Tenn., one of the last big-city school systems in the nation to allow it.

Supt. Carol Johnson began reviewing the use of corporal punishment when she arrived in Memphis last year, and found that staff routinely were violating district policy, sometimes using paddling as punishment for untucked uniforms or athletic underperformance. Johnson has proposed a “blue ribbon behavior initiative” to fill the vacuum when the paddling stops.

“She wants to put things in place that will encourage students to make the right choices without someone standing over them with a paddle,” said Vincent McCaskill, a spokesman for the Memphis schools.


In the past, opponents of corporal punishment had made little headway in Memphis. As recently as September, an independent survey of 1,006 parents whose children attend city schools found that 70% considered paddling an appropriate punishment through high school.

The responses broke down by race, with black parents most likely to see paddling as a healthy aspect of child rearing.

Wayne Mathis, whose five children have attended Memphis schools, said his best teachers and coaches had used corporal punishment, and their influence helped steer him away from dangerous behavior. “It made me realize that not only my mother and father are watching me -- there are other people who care about what happened to me,” Mathis said.

Lora Jobe, the school board member who proposed the ban, called the vote a “small miracle.” She had put forward a similar proposal in 1997, but it failed by a vote of 6 to 3, and the backlash left her so discouraged that she decided not to raise the issue again until this year. On Monday, through more than four hours of debate, she expected another disappointment.


“It’s just a beautiful thing to behold,” Jobe said. “It keeps me optimistic about people being willing to listen to new information.”

Statistics from the 2003-2004 school year showed that teachers and staff had administered 27,918 paddlings among the district’s more than 118,000 students. Use of the paddle varied widely in each school -- with Airways Middle School accounting for 9% of paddlings. Thirty-eight of the district’s 192 schools did not use paddling.

In anticipation of the vote, opponents of corporal punishment enlisted the support of African American leaders such as Julian Bond, chairman of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Alvin Poussaint, a Harvard psychiatrist who met with Memphis educators in October.

They argued that paddling was a holdover from the days of slavery and Jim Crow, when black parents tried to prepare children for a threatening world.