A familiar and troubling reaction to disturbing numbers

A familiar and troubling reaction to disturbing numbers

- in Fitzsimon File

Children in North Carolina public schools were hit more than 1,400 times last year as a form of discipline according to report presented to lawmakers this week by Action for Children. That doesn't appear to trouble state education leaders, who don't even collect the statistics.

The State Board of Education hasn't weighed in on the issue at all, despite compelling evidence that corporal punishment negatively affects students' psychological and educational development and shapes their view of violence.

Thirty states ban the practice. North Carolina law allows local school districts to decide if adults can strike children to teach them a lesson. Sixty-nine of the state's 115 districts have banned corporal punishment, 46 still allow it.

The report finds that 90 percent of the hitting last year came in just ten districts, with Burke County topping the list, and that it doesn't appear to be helping students behave better. There's no correlation for example between corporal punishment and suspensions.

Schools where children are spanked don't seem to do any better keeping kids in school. Many have higher than average dropout rates.

Most disturbingly of all, the study finds that there is no exemption from the policy in state or federal law for students with disabilities, however severe. There are no numbers about how many times children with disabilities were struck last year, but it is almost certainly happening.

A 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Education found that students with disabilities in North Carolina were hit 290 times in 2006 and a national report last year by Human Rights Watch and the ACLU found that students with disabilities were hit twice as often students in the general population.

Action for Children and other advocates have proposed a ban on corporal punishment for the last several years, but state lawmakers have refused, usually after debates that are as disturbing as this week's report.

In one House floor debate a few years ago, Rep. Ronnie Sutton told his colleagues that when he was growing up, he was "beaten like a rented mule once or twice a week at school." Of course, he didn't mention that mules can't be beaten. They are protected by state animal cruelty laws.

In recent years, officials with the North Carolina Association of Educators, the UNC School of Social Work and the North Carolina PTA have all spoken out for a corporal punishment ban. They have cited the culture created by corporal punishment administered by authority figures, the bad example it provides for kids, and the research that shows it is not an effective way to discipline children.

All that has yet to convince the majority of lawmakers, many of whom often point to what they claims is the deterrence value of corporal punishment. The State School Boards Association always fights the ban, supporting the right of local school districts to decide if it is ok to hit children.

Groups on the religious right are also outspoken opponents and say that spanking is an effective form of discipline.  

It's hard to be optimistic that those attitudes have changed much as the reaction of lawmakers this week to the Action for Children report was mixed at best. One lawmaker worried that even the partial step of banning corporal punishment for students with disabilities would mean some children would escape punishment.

Rep. Curtis Blackwood suggested that the report's authors deliberately used words to arouse emotions to build support for a ban.

But no specific words are needed. In a civilized world, news of children at school being struck by adults would prompt outrage, not heads nodding in approval.