Many child psychologists have been arguing for years that spanking is bad for children. Now new research is backing that assertion up, finding that it tends to makes kids more likely to act up again and can create other problems down the road.
The study comes soon after Georgia found itself at the center of the corporal punishment debate. An Internet video quickly went viral earlier this month showing a 5-year-old Jasper County boy sobbing and squirming as his school’s principal prepared to paddle him with a wooden board, punishment after he allegedly spit on someone. It was filmed by the boy’s mother.
But just how pervasive is corporal punishment in Georgia schools? The Atlanta Journal-Constitution looked at data from across the state and found that the number of schools who paddle misbehaving students is actually on the decline.
The percentage of Georgia schools that paddled students has plummeted by one-fifth over four years. In 2012, roughly 1 school in 6 in paddled. That dropped to 1 school in 8 in 2015, according to data collected by the state Department of Education.
Only 281 of the 2,300 schools in Georgia use corporal punishment, according to state figures. That’s just 12 percent.
Most of the schools that use paddles are in the rural areas of the state, such as Jasper County, southeast of Atlanta. A few are on the outer fringes of what constitutes metro-Atlanta.
Precise numbers about how frequently paddling occurs are difficult to come by. Georgia collects data on paddling incidents, but some school officials raise questions about the accuracy of the state data.
Wilcox County officials said there were 285 paddlings last year at the county’s high school about 80 miles south of Macon which has just under 400 students.
Julie Childers, superintendent in the Middle Georgia school district, said spanking is not the first disciplinary alternative, but it falls on an escalating scale of punishment for students who break the rules. An infraction might warrant something as minor as a warning from a teacher or a trip to the front office, Childers said. But if a student violation rises to a certain level they are offered the choice.
“In the high school we have the option: you can sit a day in in-school suspension or taking a paddling and going back to class,” Childers said. “And usually they just take the spanking.”
Parents may opt-out, saying they don’t want their child to be spanked, and can invoke that right at any point of the school year. Most, however, support the use of an occasional spanking, she said.
The incident in Jasper County seemed to attract concern, in part, because of the age - and tiny size - of the child compared to the large paddle.
Elementary schools in the state appear to use the punishment less frequently than schools overall, state data shows.
In 2012, one elementary school in 12 reported at least one instance of paddling. That declined to one school in 16 in 2015.
Bleckley County is among the districts that paddle in the lower grades.
Like Wilcox County, the district has an opt-out policy, where parents can revoke any agreement to paddle their child at any time for any reason, said Steve Smith, superintendent of the schools. He said most corporal punishment in his school system is meted out in the lower grades. Giving a spanking, he said, is preferable to putting a child in in-school suspension because the child typically learns more in their classroom than in suspension.
“We never give more than three licks and typically it’s one little lick and we send them on back to class,” Smith said.
But Smith said occasionally a parent makes an odd request.
“You’d be surprised how many parents call and say, ‘Can you give my child a spanking at school’ for something they did at home,” Smith said. “We tell them, no, you’ve got to take care of that at home.”
The latest study comes from the University of Texas at Austin and University of Michigan. Researchers looked at 50 years of data from 75 different studies involving more than 160,000 children. Study author Elizabeth Gershoff concluded that the effects of spanking were similar to those in children who suffered physical abuse. The children who were spanked tended to struggle with antisocial behavior, mental health issues and determining right from wrong later in life
That doesn’t surprise Jinger Robins, executive director of Safe Path Children’s Advocacy Center in Marietta.
Robins said watching the Jasper County video the little boy getting a paddling, “gave me chills.” While she doesn’t like to see parents use it, she believes it’s unethical for a school system to use it.
“These school systems need to look at the research in terms of long-term control and temporary behavior modifiers. Spanking doesn’t work.” Robins said. “We need something else.”
Smith said he’d be willing to drop a spanking policy if parents in his district asked the school board to look at doing so. So far, that hasn’t happened.
“I’m OK with that,” Smith said. “We’ll do whatever it takes to reach our kids.”