The Supreme Court decision allowing corporal punishment in the nation's schools is not expected to have any effect in Washington area school systems. Most abandoned the practice years ago and now appear to have little inclination to bring it back.
Maryland has a law against corporal punishment but does permit local school jurisdictions to ask the state legislature to be exempted from the law. Virginia allows physical punishment in its schools and both the Alexandria and Fairfax school systems permit some corporal punishment. Arlington, Prince George's, Montgomery, and the District of Columbia forbid it.
In a 5-to-4 decision the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that corporal punishment, no matter how servere, does not violate the Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. However, the court said individual states may pass laws that limit or forbid such punishment.
In Fairfax, school officials are permitted to administer corporal punishment only to elementary pupils. In Alexandria, both elementary and high school students may be spanked but witnesses must be present when such punishment is applied.
Many area school officials said they believe physical punishment should be handled by parents, not teachers.
"I cannot say that I have never spanked one of my own kids, but I don't want anyone else doing it," Diane Henderson, chairwoman of the Arlington School Board, said.
Although Alexandria still practices corporal punishment, school Supt. John C. Albohm said he believes that the system is essentially unfair.
"In my measure, the punishment is ineffective because it is selective," he said. "I've never seen the mayor's kid get a paddling, I've never seen the school superintendent's kid get a pad- dling, and I've never seen a Supreme Court justice's kid get a paddling."
Albohm said that the requirement that witnesses be present when a child is paddled "provides a cooling off period that in effect stops me from doing it."
He said that disciplinary problems in the school system had been reduced in the last five years. He said this was not because there had been more paddling but resulted from smaller classes, good teachers and cooperation from parents.
Fairfax County School Supt. S. John Davis said that his school system permitted corporal punishment of elementary school pupils because it is a disciplinary tool that should be available to the schools.
"However," he said, "I am very careful about its misuse and it has to be monitored very closely. I don't want open season on youngsters."
He said the Fairfax school systems respects a parent's wish not to have his child spanked by school officials and had not received more than one or two complaints about mistreatment of students in the last seven years.
Asked what instrument is most frequently used to hit pupils Davis replied: "It's so seldom used that I just don't know."
School officials emphasized that better teaching methods were now available to help children who may have emotional and psychological difficulties and that much time has been spent trying to figure out the causes of a particular student's behavior.
"We're trying to take advantage of all the years of educational and psychological investigation that has been done since the rack and screw was thrown away," David Splitt, the general counsel to the District of Columbia Board of Education said.
He said corporal punishment in city schools was "strictly forbidden" and that discipline was maintaned through conferences between students and teachers and special learning programs. Splitt said city schools operate under a code of conduct that states the grounds on which a student may be suspended and the procedures to be followed.
Many of the other area school districts have also instituted written codes of conduct that spell out in detail what type of behavior will result in a student being suspended. In the Prince George's school system, for example, striking a teacher, the use of drugs and use of a weapons are among the actions that will result in automatic suspension.
Betty Culotta, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, which includes 6,500 teachers in the county school system, said teachers do not like to view themselves as disciplinarians. "We want to take care of a child's education, nothis punishment," she said.