Educator Resigns After Refusing to Paddle Student
by Michael Dobbs, The Washington Post, February 21, 2004
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-- The debate over whether corporal punishment has a place in
American education became very personal for Ralph McLaney when
the principal of Carver Middle School ordered him to paddle on a
sixth grade student who’d acted up in class.
“The idea of a big white guy hitting an 80-pound black girl
because she talked back to the teacher did not sit well with
me,” said McLaney, who resigned his assistant principal’s post
soon after the school year began rather than carry out his
superior’s instructions. “I decided I did not get my master’s
degree in education to spend my time paddling students.”
A decision last month by the Canadian Supreme Court to outlaw
the use of the strap by teachers has left the United States and
a lone state in Australia as the only parts of the
industrialized world to allow corporal punishment in schools,
according to anti-paddling activists. While 28 U.S. states have
outlawed paddling over the past three decades, the practice
remains commonplace across much of the southern Bible Belt.
Here in the nation’s top paddling state, nearly 10 percent of
students are paddled every year, according to statistics
collected by the federal Department of Education. In poorer
parts of the state, where a higher proportion of children are
from minority and single-parent families, the use of corporal
punishment is more frequent.
“The point is to get the students’ attention, not to inflict
pain,” said Carver Middle School principal Earnest Ward.
“Sometimes all you have to do is hold a paddle up and it will
scare a student to death. Others are not afraid of it at all.”
Although child psychologists say corporal punishment risks
reinforcing negative behavior, many Meridian teachers and
parents consider it an effective form of discipline,
particularly at the elementary and middle school level. They
maintain that three quick licks (the maximum permitted by the
school board) with an officially approved, quarter-inch thick
wooden paddle is often preferable to keeping children out of
class and putting them even further behind in their studies.
Then there is the religious argument.
“Are we going to believe man’s report or God’s report?” asked
Cherry Moore, a special education teacher at Carver and
co-pastor of a local church. She believes that Old Testament
references to “spoiling the child by sparing the rod” should
outweigh the allegedly negative effects of corporal punishment
cited by child development experts.
The debate over corporal punishment at Carver Middle School,
provoked by one administrator’s crisis of conscience, reflects a
much broader divide running through American education. Studies
have shown that there is a high correlation between paddling and
poverty, and corporal punishment is more common in rural areas
than in urban areas.
Opponents of paddling argue that corporal punishment merely
perpetuates a cycle of poverty and violence. Supporters contend
that it undergirds orderly and disciplined schools, which
represent a child’s best hope for social and academic
Although McLaney had taught in other Mississippi schools,
mainly in the metropolitan Jackson area, he concedes that he
felt out of place at Carver. The school draws most of its
students from nearby housing projects. More than 90 percent of
them are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, a common
measure of poverty. Three quarters of the children come from
“In other Mississippi schools where I have worked, the paddle
was a dusty relic,” he said. “It was put on the shelf and used
when the football player didn’t want to miss the big game.”
When McLaney was appointed assistant principal of Carver Middle
School last summer, he agreed to enforce the school board’s code
of discipline, which includes paddling. At the time, he said, he
did not realize he would be expected to paddle as many as 10 to
15 students a day. When he sought to use other methods of
disciplining students, such as detention, his colleagues
complained that he was shirking his duties.
According to written notes kept by McLaney, he received
repeated admonishments from Ward, the principal, including
comments such as, “These kids are different, all they understand
is the paddle,” and “walk the halls and, if the kids are out of
line, burn their butts.” McLaney says he resigned as assistant
principal on Sept. 30 when it became clear to him that the
alternative was to be fired for insubordination.
Ward refuses to discuss his conversations with McLaney and
describes the resignation as a private personnel matter. He
points out that corporal punishment at Carver is carried out in
strict accordance with policies laid down by the school’s board
of trustees. The punishment must be carried out by an
administrator, in his office, in the presence of a witness, and
advance parental consent is required.
Typically, paddlings are administered for fairly minor offenses
such as disrespect to a teacher, disturbing the class, profanity
or tardiness. More serious infractions, such as fighting with
other students, are punished by suspension.
According to federal statistics, the use of corporal punishment
has been in sharp decline since the early 1970s, when states
began to outlaw the practice. In 2000, the most recent year for
which figures are available from the Department of Education,
342,038 public school students were paddled, down from 1.5
million in 1976. The figures do not include paddlings in private
and religious schools.
“Under U.S. law, children are the only class of individuals who
can be legally hit,” said Nadine Block of the Center for
Effective Discipline, a leading anti-paddling group. “Children
have less legal protection than someone who is in jail, or in
In some states, such as Pennsylvania and Wyoming, corporal
punishment of students remains legal, though the institution has
all but died out. The top paddling states after Mississippi are
Arkansas (9.1 percent of students paddled in 2000), Alabama (5.4
percent) and Tennessee (4.2 percent.) According to Block, black
students are paddled more than twice as often as other students,
proportionate to the overall population.
Corporal punishment in schools is illegal in most of the rest of
the world, and has been banned in most of Europe for several
decades. Over the past few years, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Pakistan
have all outlawed the practice. The Canadian Supreme Court ruled
on Jan. 30 that teachers could use “physical force” to restrain
fighting students, but were not permitted to use disciplinary
instruments such as a paddle or strap.
In its most recent ruling on paddling, the U.S. Supreme Court
said in 1977 that the eighth amendment, which prohibits cruel
and unusual punishment, applied to convicted criminals but not
to students. It also ruled that teachers could punish children
without parental permission.
Most school districts that allow paddling now stipulate that it
must be done with the permission of parents, a requirement that
has sharply reduced the number of legal complaints. There are,
however, still some school districts in Texas where parental
permission is not necessary.
Jean Merrill, who lives in the northern Texas town of City View,
said she withdrew her 15-year-old daughter from the local
secondary school after she was paddled by the principal for
wearing a T-shirt that slightly exposed her midriff.
“I told the principal they were not to touch my child without
calling me,” she said. “When he still refused to call, I pulled
her out of there.” School Superintendent Michael Smith said
paddling is legal in Texas, and no notification is required.
Like other Meridian schools, Carver Middle School sends parents
a note at the beginning of every school year, outlining its
corporal punishment policy. According to Ward, about 80 percent
check the box on Form 053-7198, which states: “I do want
corporal punishment administered according to district policy if
my child’s behavior indicates such a need.”
“When my son got spanked, he didn’t act up any more,” said
Patricia Moody, a Carver parent and security guard in a local
hospital, who had come to the school to retrieve her daughter
after a classroom brawl. “Three licks on the butt, and they get
McLaney, who came to teaching from a civilian job in the Navy,
was loath to give up his assistant principal’s post, which paid
$53,000, “good money for Mississippi,” he said. When he asked
the state attorney general’s office whether he could refuse to
paddle a student on grounds of conscience, he was told that
there were no grounds for refusing “a valid, legal order” from
his supervisor. A lawyer hired to represent him by the teacher’s
union gave him similar advice.
“In the end, I resigned because they made it very clear they
were going to fire me otherwise,” said McLaney, who is still
looking for another education job.
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