Where Corporal Punishment Is Still Used In Schools, Its Roots Run Deep

Apr 12, 2017
Originally published on April 12, 2017 5:55 am

Robbinsville High School sits in a small gap in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. Green slopes dotted with cattle hug in around the school before they rise into a thick cover of pine trees.

David Matheson is the principal here. And he's the only high school principal in the state who still performs corporal punishment. At Robbinsville, corporal punishment takes the form of paddling - a few licks on the backside Matheson delivers with a long wooden paddle.

North Carolina state law describes corporal punishment, as "The intentional infliction of physical pain upon the body of a student as a disciplinary measure."

Robbinsville High School's policy allows students to request a paddling in place of in-school-suspension, or ISS. Last year, 22 students chose it.

"Most kids will tell you that they choose the paddling so they don't miss class," Matheson says.

One of those students is Allison Collins. She's a senior now and says she chose to be paddled her sophomore year after her phone went off in class. She describes it as, "My first time ever being in trouble."

Collins went to the assistant principal's office where she was told she had a day of in-school-suspension. Collins told Principal Matheson she'd rather take a paddling and so he called her father to get permission.

"And my dad was like, 'Just paddle her,'" she says. "Because down here in the mountains, we do it the old-school way."

That's the policy here. Principal Matheson paddles a student only if he gets permission from their parent. And, he says, very few parents opt out. Matheson grew up here and went to school with a lot of his students' parents. "It's something that the family decides," he adds.

Nationwide, it's not unusual for parents to support the use of corporal punishment as a form of discipline. Recent surveys show about 75 percent of Americans believe it's sometimes necessary to spank a child.

"I think it goes back to traditional values," says Cheri Lynn, a Robbinsville parent who substitutes as a band teacher and coaches the school's shooting team. "A lot of parents still hold to the traditional values of corporal punishment. They use it at home, and so the school is an extension of home."

In a classroom down the hall, Beau Cronland, a student teacher, says he didn't know the school used corporal punishment until he sent one of his freshman to the office for talking. "Kids talk," he says, "I don't think they should get spanked for it, or paddled."

Tom Vitaglione, of the child-advocacy group NC Child, says for years he's been sending school leaders research papers showing corporal punishment leads to bad outcomes for students: higher drop-out rates, increased rates of depression and substance abuse and increased violent episodes down the road.

Principal Matheson says he's seen that research, but he still believes paddling is an effective form of discipline. "I think if more schools did it, we'd have a whole lot better society. I do, I believe that."

Vitaglione takes issue with that: "When it gets to schools, we now have an agent of the state hitting a child," he says. "And we don't believe that should happen."

When he started this work, more than thirty years ago, thousands of children in North Carolina were struck each year. Now, Robbinsville High is one of just a few schools that still use it. The latest numbers show about 70 students were paddled in the state last school year.

A recent investigation by Education Week shows that in the 2013-2014 school year, about 110,000 students were physically punished nationwide. That's in part because in some states, including Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Texas, tens of thousands of students are paddled every year.

Child advocates are working toward zero paddlings in North Carolina. They're asking state legislators to outlaw the practice in schools for good. That's happening nationwide, too.

As NPR Ed reported in December, dozens of groups, including the National PTA, Children's Defense Fund and American Academy of Pediatrics signed a letter of their own, supporting an end to corporal punishment.

Copyright 2017 American Homefront Project. To see more, visit American Homefront Project.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Corporal punishment is still used in public schools, mostly in the South. Recent federal data show more than a hundred thousand students are subjected to physical pain as a form of discipline each year. Jess Clark of member station WUNC takes us to one school in the mountains of North Carolina where the practice continues.

JESS CLARK, BYLINE: Robbinsville High School sits in a small gap in the Smoky Mountains. Green slopes topped with pine trees hug in around the school building. If there's one word to describe this area, it would be isolated.

So this is, like, really in the mountains here.

DAVID MATHESON: It is really in the mountains, yes.

CLARK: David Matheson is principal of Robbinsville High, a school of about 350 students, and he's the only high school principal in the state who still uses corporal punishment. At Robbinsville, corporal punishment takes the form of paddling - a few licks on the behind with a long, wooden paddle delivered by Matheson. The school's policy allows students to request a physical punishment in place of in-school suspension or ISS. Last year, 22 students chose it.

MATHESON: Most kids will tell you, you know, that they choose the paddling so they don't miss class. And even though they get their work in ISS, it's still not like being in the classes, you know, in front of the teacher.

CLARK: Allison Collins is a senior here. She says she chose to be paddled her sophomore year after her cell phone went off in class.

ALLISON COLLINS: That's, like, my first time ever been in trouble (laughter).

CLARK: Collins told principal Matheson she'd rather that than a day of ISS, and Matheson called her father to get his permission.

COLLINS: And my dad was like, just paddle her 'cause down here in the mountains, we do it the old-school way (laughter).

CLARK: Matheson says he always asks parents first, and very few opt out.

MATHESON: And I think that's one of the reasons maybe so many parents are good with it. It's something that the family decides.

CLARK: Matheson leads me to the band room where Cheri Lynn is substitute teaching.

CHERI LYNN: (Laughter) Oh no, you - oh, you found me.

MATHESON: Yeah.

LYNN: I was trying to hide.

CLARK: Lynn, who has her own kids at Robbinsville, says she and other parents support the use of corporal punishment in school.

LYNN: I think it goes back to traditional values. A lot of the parents still hold to the traditional values of corporal punishment. They use it at home. And so the school is an extension of the home.

CLARK: Recent surveys show about 75 percent of Americans believe it's sometimes necessary to spank a child. In a small, tight-knit community like Robbinsville, many parents entrust school staff to carry out that form of discipline.

TOM VITAGLIONE: When it gets to the schools, we now have an agent of the state hitting a child.

CLARK: That's where Tom Vitaglione takes issue with the practice. He's with the advocacy group NC Child.

VITAGLIONE: And we don't believe that should happen and that cultural issues should not override that perspective.

CLARK: Vitaglione has been working to get corporal punishment out of North Carolina schools since 1985. When he started, thousands of North Carolina kids got paddled each year. Now Robbinsville High is one of just a few schools that still use it.

VITAGLIONE: We're on a list of 19 states. There are only 19 states left that still do it. Where there with, like, Texas that does it more than 20,000 times a year and Mississippi and Alabama and Arkansas - all over 15,000 times a year. And we did it 57 times last year. For 57 cases, you keep us on the list.

CLARK: Updated state records show North Carolina's number is closer to 70 for last year. Vitaglione says for years, he's been sending school leaders research papers showing corporal punishment leads to higher dropout rates, increased rates of depression and substance abuse and increased violent episodes down the road. Principal Matheson says he's seen that research, but he still believes corporal punishment is effective. For NPR News, I'm Jess Clark in Robbinsville, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "KNEE DEEP IN THE NORTH SEA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.