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Striking corporal punishment from schools official in Pennsylvania

August 05, 2002|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

Edwin Sponseller, superintendent of 8,000 students in the Chambersburg, Pa., school district, remembers using his college fraternity wooden paddle to "whack" children.

Now, the practice of hitting students as a discipline initiative is not used.

"Corporal punishment is by policy still permitted. However, no one that I know of uses it," Sponseller said.

Unofficial in Chambersburg since the 1980s, the policy not to paddle students may officially hit the books. State Board of Education members agreed recently that Pennsylvania should join 27 other states that ban corporal punishment in public schools.

"We realize it is not accepted by the public," Sponseller said. "It's not seen as a positive motivator."

Sponseller, currently in his 36th year as an educator, said he paddled students while working as a teacher and an administrator. Paddling was more efficient than detention or demerits, he said.

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"You could expedite punishment by three quick whacks," he said.

Today's litigious society and other factors influenced the decision to eliminate paddling, Sponseller said.

"Times have changed," Sponseller said. "Philosophy has changed."

William Konzal, superintendent in the Tuscarora District in Pennsylvania, which contains about 2,700 students, has never paddled a child in his 30-plus years as an educator.

"I just don't think they ought to be hit," he said. "There are other ways to reach kids."

He said he prefers that family members and teachers of problem children work together to try to correct problems.

In his fourth year at Tuscarora, Konzal said as far as he knows nobody paddles.

"I'm not sure what the paddling does other than make the child feel embarrassed," he said. "It might have a short-term effect. But again, I don't think you belittle a child."

Konzal and Sponseller said they support the proposal to officially ban corporal punishment.

After the House and Senate education committees and an independent regulatory review panel recommend any changes to the proposal, state board members will vote on it.

West Virginia officials banned corporal punishment in schools in 1995. Maryland officials banned it statewide in 1993.

Because Jefferson County (W.Va.) Schools Superintendent R. Steven Nichols took over recently - on July 1 - he is not sure what, if any, reaction existed when the state banned corporal punishment.

Nichols, who has 30 years of education experience and is an adjunct professor at the University of Virginia, believes paddling was most likely phased out long before it was legally banned.

He never paddled a student.

Schools, he said, are sometimes "the one safe haven for a child" - not a place for violence. Alternatives to paddling exist, he said.

"You're trying to involve parents as much as possible," Nichols said. "You also have the old-fashioned detention hall" and suspension.

In Washington County, Supervisor of Guidance Jim Russell said plenty of alternatives exist to corporal punishment. Privileges, such as computer usage, can be taken away; administrators can issue detention; notes can be sent or phone calls can be made to the child's parents; or students can be made to attend Saturday school or spend a day in in-school suspension, among other initiatives.

Like Nichols, Russell believes Washington County school officials ceased using corporal punishment before it was deemed illegal.

"It's been a long time, 10 years or so, since the paddle was used," he said.

A notation in the student handbook notes that corporal punishment is prohibited, he said.

Should the proposal pass in Pennsylvania, teachers and administrators could still use "reasonable force" under specific circumstances, such as self-defense or restraining a student.

In the United States during the 1997-98 school year, more than 365,000 students, or 1 percent of the nation's public school enrollment, were subjected to corporal punishment, according to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. Those are the most recent figures available.

In Pennsylvania during that year, 90 students were hit, a rate of less than one-tenth of 1 percent.

Black students are hit at twice the rate of their makeup in the population. Seventeen percent of U.S. students are black, but they receive 37 percent of paddlings, the national office indicated.

Along with Maryland, West Virginia and Washington, D.C., the following states prohibit corporal punishment in schools: Alaska, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

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