Apodaca: Corporal punishment should be history

Until recently, I had assumed that corporal punishment in schools was a thing of the past, a practice relegated to the dustbin of history by a more enlightened modern culture that views the "spare the rod, spoil the child" method of childrearing as a misguided anachronism.

Turns out I was wrong. Indeed, the issue of spanking in schools is undergoing some increased scrutiny of late due to some highly publicized cases popping up around the country.

To be clear, corporal punishment in schools is illegal in California, as it is in 30 other states.

But 19 states still allow physical punishment of students, and more than 200,000 children a year are subjected to it, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In some of these states, enforcement policies are left up to individual districts, resulting in extremely uneven application of the practice. Rules vary, for instance, regarding whether schools must obtain parental permission before administering the punishment.

One recent incident that's sparking debate on the topic involved the spanking of a 15-year-old girl by a male vice principal in Texas, where corporal punishment in schools is legal.

The student's mother had initially consented to the penalty after school officials found that the girl had let a classmate copy her homework.

However, the mother later protested to the local school board that the spanking with a wooden paddle had gone too far, painfully blistering the girl's bottom. It also violated district policy that such punishments may only be delivered by school employees of the same gender as the student.

Another highly publicized case arose last year in Florida, where corporal punishment in schools is also legal and legislative attempts to ban the practice have failed to gain traction. A 5-year-old boy was paddled at his elementary school for rowdy behavior on a school bus. The student's mother complained to school officials that the punishment was so severe that her son had welts on his buttocks and suffered a trauma-induced asthma attack that prompted an emergency-room visit.

Despite the controversy, there are still plenty of advocates who see spanking, paddling and other forms of physical discipline as good old-fashioned, tried-and-true methods of cracking down on kids. Studies have found that large numbers of Americans believe corporal punishment is a suitable option, although support tends to run higher for its use at home rather than at school.

To date, no states have enacted an outright ban on corporal punishment at home, and federal legislation remains highly unlikely, even though many other countries have enacted laws prohibiting its use under any circumstances.

So for now, we are left with a patchwork of laws allowing corporal punishment in some settings but not others.

The theory behind corporal punishment is plain as day: If you deliver a smack hard enough to cause pain, the child will stop the unwanted behavior. And experts generally agree that it often works — for a short period of time.

But that doesn't hold true over the long term, they contend. And there is overwhelming evidence that corporal punishment actually causes or exacerbates emotional, behavioral and learning problems.

What's more, it teaches children that violence is an appropriate response, and they model their own behavior accordingly. Children might avoid the adults who delivered the punishment but take out their aggression on other kids, for example.

There are also concerns aplenty about the potential for corporal punishment to cross the line from measured discipline to angry beating, a dangerous development that can cause serious physical and psychological damage. Some studies indicate that people who are subjected to physical discipline while young tend to become more aggressive adults.

Citing reams of research on the matter, organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Assn. oppose the use of corporal punishment, and groups such as the Center for Effective Discipline and fashion designer Marc Ecko's Unlimited Justice nonprofit advocate a total ban on all forms of physical punishment of children.

Opponents aren't just focusing on legal relief. They're hoping to make the practice increasingly rare by educating parents and students about their rights, and encouraging alternative methods of discipline they contend are safer and more effective.

There will probably always be those who won't be shaken from the belief that sometimes kids just need a good smack. Many likely rely on anecdotes and their own histories to conclude that there are times when there's just no other way to get children to behave — the "I was spanked, and I turned out fine" rationale.

If personal history counts as evidence, I'll offer my own.

My dad, a stern disciplinarian, did not once resort to laying a punishing hand on me, yet just one look from him could render me silent and obedient. My mother, possibly the most gentle soul that ever graced the earth, inspired good behavior from her children and students simply because they didn't want to let her down.

I wasn't spanked, and I think I turned out just fine.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World