First of two partsLast year, the blue-collar town of Temple found itself in the spotlight after its school board decided to reinstate corporal punishment.National journalists headed to Central Texas to report that in some towns, it's OK to give licks to misbehaving students.Supporters and opponents debated the old-school discipline in chat rooms and on message boards. People, it seemed, had plenty to say about a school district bringing back the paddle.But for hundreds of Texas schools, including some in North Texas, the paddle has never stopped swinging."I think most people are surprised that it still goes on, especially in other parts of the country," said Jimmy Dunne, president of People Opposed to Paddling Students, a Houston-based organization that has worked to abolish corporal punishment in Texas schools since the 1980s. "I don't think there is any place for paddling. I think it's child abuse and it should be banned."State Rep. Alma Allen, D-Houston, agrees. In January, she introduced House Bill 916, which seeks to ban corporal punishment in all Texas school districts -- her fourth effort to pass an anti-paddling law."Only 40 of 1,033 school districts in the state of Texas have banned it, so we have a long way to go," said Allen, a retired principal with the Houston school district, which no longer paddles students. "This, for me, is a really daunting issue. Schools should be happy places. Children cannot learn in an environment that is threatening. I don't want to go anywhere where someone is going to beat me."Texas is one of 20 states, most of them in the Bible Belt, that still allow corporal punishment in schools.During the 2006-07 school year, the most recent period with statewide statistics available, more than 49,000 Texas students were paddled, putting Texas at the top of the list, according to the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights. But the punishment continues to be a controversial and confusing subject, partly because school districts make their own policies and the line between discipline and abuse can be blurred.In North Texas, most of the big districts, including Fort Worth, Dallas and Arlington, have policies against it. Others, including Everman and White Settlement, allow paddling but rarely use it.Many other districts, especially in rural areas, regularly paddle students. Springtown has used corporal punishment at least 103 times this school year, while Alvarado has used it at least 46 times and Godley 21 times.Those who support paddling say it deters bad behavior."Rep. Allen is 72 years old, and she is out of touch with reality," said Gilbert Leal, a political consultant and former substitute teacher who started the website bringbacklicks.com last year in an effort to reinstate corporal punishment in the Dallas school district."I'm not trying to discredit her, but when is the last time she was in the classroom?" Leal said. "If anything, she should remember the good old days when there was no such thing as in-school suspension. It was just the looming threat of the paddle -- and that was enough."Pediatricians opposedMost experts agree that social acceptance of spanking has waned in the past several years, perhaps reflecting the changing views of the medical profession.The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that corporal punishment be abolished in all schools by law because "it may affect adversely a student's self-image and school achievement and ... it may contribute to disruptive and violent student behavior."Dr. David Sabine, a clinical psychologist in Wichita Falls, said 30 states have banned it for a reason."Only those ignorant of what works in shaping behavior -- or those who remain intentionally blind to it -- can maintain a defense of corporal punishment," Sabine said. "It teaches the child to use violence to achieve one's desired ends. If you think a child knows the difference between their being aggressive to a peer and an authority being aggressive to them, think again. Social-learning psychologists have shown definitively that children are major imitators. They do what they have seen others do. ... I love my state, but the fact that this policy endures is embarrassing and tragic."Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, an outspoken supporter of corporal punishment who passed a bill in 2005 that reaffirmed parents' rights to paddle, remains steadfast in his belief that paddling should be a tool for parents and educators when a child needs an attitude adjustment."Discipline is designed to teach that bad choices lead to bad consequences," he said. "We're not talking about abusing kids. We're talking about a situation where a child has engaged in certain activities that need correction. If you don't allow corporal punishment as a discipline tool, administrators will increasingly suspend students and put them out of school. And which is worse?"'A last resort'In Texas, the decision to use corporal punishment rests with each district's school board, which outlines its policies in its student code of conduct. The Texas Association of School Boards recommends guidelines and provides "model" policies to follow, but ultimately each district is free to do what it wants.In many districts, including Cleburne, Godley, and Springtown, spankings are often given instead of detention, suspension or other discipline, and after consultation with a parent. Many districts also specify that the principal must administer corporal punishment, out of view of other students."Teachers and coaches are not allowed to administer corporal punishment," said Burleson Superintendent Richard Crummel. "There are a plethora of methods available to redirect inappropriate behaviors without resorting to corporal punishment, so it is used as a last resort -- primarily at the request of the parent."In Temple, only one student has been paddled since corporal punishment was reinstated last year -- and that was at a parent's request.John Hancock, Temple's assistant superintendent of administration, said corporal punishment was brought back because parents who paddled their children at home wanted consistent discipline at school. Students whose parents oppose corporal punishment will not be spanked, he said."If you don't want your child paddled, I'm here to see that it does not happen," Hancock said. "It's an issue over which individuals are divided, and our goal is to be respectful of both sides."Hancock said school officials are constantly evaluating their policy and appreciate the ability to change it to fit the needs of their students and community."Traditionally, we have been a state where local control was valued," he said. "It's complex and it's personal and, certainly, one would want the wishes of the local community to be considered. It's not a simplistic issue."Rep. Allen knows it will be a challenge to take the paddle out of Texans' hands, but she vows to keep trying."Texas is a Bible Belt state and they truly believe 'Spare the rod, spoil the child,'" Allen said. "We come from a Christian perspective, that this is what we are supposed to do. I'm not to the point where I'm thinking it will pass, but I'm feeling good about the amount of support we have and about the people who are willing to come down and testify and rally and rattle cages."We're making progress," she said. "It will be my cause."Staff writer Shirley Jinkins contributed to this report.
Melody McDonald, 817-390-7386