WASHINGTON - Paddlings, swats, licks. A quarter of a million schoolchildren got them last year — and blacks, American Indians and kids with disabilities got a disproportionate share of the punishment, according to a study by a human rights group.
Even little kids can be paddled. Heather Porter, who lives in Crockett, Texas, was startled to hear her little boy, then 3, say he'd been spanked at school. Porter was never told, despite a policy at the public preschool that parents be notified.
"We were pretty ticked off, to say the least. The reason he got paddled was because he was untying his shoes and playing with the air conditioner thermostat," Porter said. "He was being a 3-year-old."
For the study, which was being released Wednesday, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union used Education Department data to show that, while paddling has been declining, racial disparity persists. Researchers also interviewed students, parents and school personnel in Texas and Mississippi, states that account for 40 percent of the 223,190 kids who were paddled at least once in the 2006-2007 school year.
Porter could have filled out a form telling the school not to paddle her son, if only she had realized he might be paddled.
Yet many parents find that such forms are ignored, the study said.
Widespread paddling can make it unlikely that forms will be checked. A teacher interviewed by Human Rights Watch, Tiffany Bartlett, said that when she taught in the Mississippi Delta, the policy was to lock the classroom doors when the bell rang, leaving stragglers to be paddled by an administrator patrolling the hallways. Bartlett now is a school teacher in Austin, Texas.
And even if schools make a mistake, they are unlikely to face lawsuits. In places where corporal punishment is allowed, teachers and principals generally have legal immunity from assault laws, the study said.
"One of the things we've seen over and over again is that parents have difficulty getting redress, if a child is paddled and severely injured, or paddled in violation of parents' wishes," said Alice Farmer, the study's author.
A majority of states have outlawed it, but corporal punishment remains widespread across the South. Behind Texas and Mississippi were Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Florida and Missouri.
African American students are more than twice as likely to be paddled. The disparity persists even in places with large black populations, the study found. Similarly, Native Americans were more than twice as likely to be paddled, the study found.
The study also found:
—In states where paddling is most common, black girls were paddled more than twice as often as white girls.
—Boys are three times as likely to be paddled as girls.
—Special education kids were more likely to be paddled.
More than 100 countries worldwide have banned paddling in schools, including all of Europe, Farmer said. "International human rights law puts a pretty strong prohibition on corporal punishment," she said.
In rural Drew, Miss., Nickolaus Luckett still remembers the paddlings he got in fifth and seventh grades. One happened when he called a teacher by her first name, the other when a classmate said, wrongly, that he threw a spitball.
"I didn't get any bruises, but they still hurt, and from that point on, I told myself and my parents I wasn't going to take any more paddlings," said Luckett, who is about to be a sophomore at the University of Mississippi.
It's not an easy choice. In many schools, kids can avoid a paddling if they accept suspension or detention, or for younger kids, if they skip recess. But often, a child opts for the short-term sting of the paddle.
And sometimes teachers don't have the option of after-school detention, because there are no buses to take kids home later.
During the three years Evan Couzo taught in the Mississippi Delta, he refused to paddle kids, offering detention instead. But others — teachers, parents, even kids — were accustomed to paddling.
"Just about everyone at the beginning of the year said, 'If he or she gives you any trouble, you can paddle them. You can send them home, and I'll paddle them. Or you can have me come out to the school, and we can both paddle them.'
"It's really just a part of the culture of the school environment there," Couzo said.
There is scant research on whether paddling is effective in the classroom. But many studies have shown it doesn't work at home, said Elizabeth Gershoff, a University of Michigan assistant professor of social work.
"The use of corporal punishment is associated almost overwhelmingly with negative effects, and that it increases children's problem behavior over time," Gershoff said.
Children may learn to solve problems using aggression, and a sense of resentment might make them act out more, Gershoff said.
The practice is banned in 29 states, most recently in Delaware and Pennsylvania. While some education groups haven't taken a position on the issue, the national PTA believes paddling should be banned everywhere.
"We teach our children that violence is wrong, yet corporal punishment teaches children that violence is a way to solve problems," said Jan Harp Domene, the group's president. "It perpetuates a cycle of child abuse. It teaches children to hit someone smaller and weaker when angry."