As of Sept. 1, no public school child in the state of New York can be lawfully paddled or otherwise beaten by a teacher or administrator. This does not mean that absolute pacifism has been imposed on school personnel. They can still use "reasonable physical force" in self-defense or to protect another pupil or teacher from a child gone berserk.
Under the new policy of the state's Board of Regents, however, no educator can use physical force on a child for such offenses as talking in class, forgetting a book, not bringing in homework, not doing homework, having a "bad attitude," or any of the other time- honored justifications for whacking a kid for his own good while also making the teacher feel better.
New York has now become the eighth state in the union to abolish corporal punishment in its schools. The others are New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maine, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.
In New York, the struggle to pry the rod away from principals and teachers has been going on for a long time. Dr. Kenneth Clark, who had broken tradition by becoming the first black member of the Board of Regents in 1966, was alone for years in trying to persuade the board that beating children in the schools was uncivilized, let alone absurd educational practice. By now, however, the New York State Parent-Teacher Associations and the State School Boards Association have come along, and the New York Civil Liberties Union has provided passionate legal arguments for an end to the inclusion of child-beating in the curriculum.
A factor in what appears to be a change of climate on this issue is the increased coverage by the press of child abuse and the dawning realization that it does not occur only in the home. Just as there are limits to parental control over a child, there also have to be restrictions on adults acting in loco parentis.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles School Board has joined the growing number of cities abolishing corporal punishment. It happened last October, and one of the more illuminating arguments against the practice was the disclosure that in 1982-83 -- the last year for which statistics were available -- 48 percent of the 1,017 kids who had been hit were black and 31 percent were Hispanic.
Also last October, Dr. Irwin Hyman, director of the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives in the Schools at Temple University, testified before the Senate subcommittee on juvenile justice that, nationally, "the major recipients of corporal punishment are blacks, poor whites and Hispanics." Hyman also noted that his research indicates "at least 2 to 3 million incidents of corporal punishment occur in American schools each year."
In Los Angeles, Jackie Goldberg, a member of the school board, said during the corporal punishment debate that the most frequent reason administrators give for hitting children is that the kids had been fighting. "That," she said, "is the ultimate irony." The child, while being hit, is told never to hit anyone again.
The president of the Los Angeles School Board, John Greenwood, said, according to the San Pedro News-Pilot, that he had changed his mind about the effects of official child-beating because of the rise in news reports of child abuse cases. Whacking a child at school, Greenwood said, is "an act which gets copied in the home." The school thereby legitimizes violence against the child by his parents.
Nonetheless the beat goes on in a lot of other cities and towns. Last fall, for instance, in Mesquite, Texas -- where corporal punishment in the classroom is as certain as the rising of the sun -- 30 kids in the third through sixth grades were paddled because they forgot to bring their watercolors to class. Said school superintendent Ralph Poteet: "We're going to keep a proper environment in this district for learning." That's also a powerful way to stimulate the kids' interest in painting.
They hit kids pretty regularly in Florida too. In an editorial, the Miami Herald observed last year that "nationwide only one out of 28 public school students is ever paddled. In Florida the number is an astonishing one out of eight."
What also astonishes me is the implied notion that beating one out of 28 American school kids is reasonable enough behavior by adults to say "only" that number of kids gets pounded.
Well, at least it's safe for children to go to school in eight states now.