Most Florida public school kids will never be whacked with a paddle for misbehaving. The number of students subjected to corporal punishment statewide has dropped dramatically in recent years, from 65,050 in 1988-’89 to 4,274 in 2008-’09 and 2,966 in 2011-’12. But Florida is still one of 19 states that nonetheless allow schoolchildren to be spanked, and now there’s a new push to end what critics call a form of institutionalized violence.
A recent study by two University of Florida College of Education professors — and funded by the Southern Poverty Law Center — recommends that the entire state retire the paddle once and for all.
“It’s never proven to be effective,” says UF associate professor Joseph Gagnon, who co-authored “Corporal Punishment in Florida Schools: Trends in Reactive, Punitive and Ineffective Approaches to Youth Behavior.” “In fact, what you’re showing kids, what you’re modeling is that the best way to deal with a problem is violence. It actually sends the wrong message.”
Twenty-eight of the state’s 67 school districts avail themselves of this disciplinary option, most of them in rural and conservative regions, including Clay and Nassau counties in Northeast Florida. The school district in Suwannee County, about an hour’s drive west of Jacksonville, with a student population of about 6,000, paddled the most — 359 times in 2012-’13. Duval County, once the state’s paddling leader, abolished corporal punishment in 2005. (At the time, according to a contemporaneous Times-Union story, nearly 80 percent of paddled students just so happened to be black.)
Gagnon describes paddling as being on a spectrum of punitive, negative and reactive forms of punishment that fail to teach young people how to deal with social and emotional challenges in their lives.
“Paddling might teach them what not to do, but it doesn’t teach them what to do,” he says. “Suspension is also punitive. What we need to do is help to promote what these kids need to be doing and how they need to act.”
In Clay County, each school decides whether or not to use corporal punishment, and just eight of the district’s 41 schools choose to do so, says Mike Wingate, the district’s director of K-12 academic support. Most administrators bring out the paddle when a parent or guardian requests it, he says, and it is only employed after discussions with both parent and student.
“You have parents, for example, who in lieu of two days’ suspension will ask if you can use corporal punishment,” he says. “It’s been left in the policy as an option, but it is very rarely used. … We understand the ramifications. We read the studies, also. That’s why there is extensive dialogue. It’s not like the schools do this as a first option. This is a last option.”
But leaving it up to schools makes for lopsided discipline. Of the 67 Clay students who were paddled in the 2011-’12 school year, 41 went to one school — Wilkinson Junior High.
The Nassau County School Board decided to keep corporal punishment on the books when it last voted on the practice in 2014. (State law requires school districts to consider their corporal punishment policies every three years.) The number of students spanked in Nassau has declined steadily, however. In 2010-’11, it was 25; the next school year, 21; the year after that, 13; and 2013-’14, just six.
Nassau County schools use corporal punishment sparingly, says Sharyl Wood, executive director of administrative services for the district — and usually at a parent’s request.
That’s not uncommon in the districts that spank.
“The pressure to paddle,” the UF report says, “often comes from the pull of tradition and the appeal of a practice rooted in seemingly simpler times. Administrators interviewed for this report described supporting corporal punishment out of a belief that ‘sparing the rod can spoil the child.’ Even administrators who disagreed with corporal punishment reported feeling pressure to use it. As this report notes, there are some parents who encourage administrators to ‘tear my kid’s tail up’ if they misbehave.”
And many adults recall their own childhood paddlings as positives: They brought them into line and didn’t cause any lasting harm.
But the data suggest otherwise — and that’s why the practice is opposed by organizations as varied the National Education Association, the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Childhood & Adolescent Psychiatry, and national associations for elementary and secondary school principals, among others. It’s also why the UF report calls for the state legislature — and school districts, and Congress — to immediately ban paddling in schools.
“Based on research and the opinions of experts and professional organizations across disciplines, the abolishment of [corporal punishment] should be undertaken at the federal, state legislative, school district, and school levels,” the report concludes. “Legally prohibiting the use of [corporal punishment] is necessary to support and enforce a cultural shift away from practices based on tradition and toward evidence-based, child-centered approaches to discipline.”
Spanking may be an effective way to control behavior in the short term, but educational research indicates that in the longer term, it’s actually counterproductive. Kids who are paddled are actually more likely to get into trouble down the line. They disconnect.
Instead of instilling a fear of authority in them, Gagnon says, the goal should be fostering a sense of connection with a community of caring adults. The paddle doesn’t do that.
“Even if it’s effective at stopping behavior, it fails them,” he says. “And here’s the big thing. Just because you experienced it and you are OK, doesn’t make it effective. I don’t think we can cave to cultural pressure and ignore science.”