Pondering the Paddle

Outgoing Memphis school-board member Lora Jobe is doing the community a favor by raising anew the long-smarting issue of corporal punishment in the schools. But with all due respect to Jobe and other opponents of what, in its mildest form, goes by the name of "paddling," a decision on the issue should be made after the November 2nd election and not, as Jobe proposes, at the school board's meeting of October 18th.

We suggest the delay for the good reason that, with elections in progress, candidates are free to discuss its pros and cons in an abundance of ongoing forums and to be questioned about the practice by parents and other likely voters. It is one of those issues that does not, as the cliché goes, admit of easy answers, and now that it's on the burner again, it should be allowed to cook some more.

Most candidate responses to the question so far have been notable for their ambivalence. Some have opposed it outright, but most hedge their positions to some degree. The prize in that respect may go to Kenneth Whalum Jr., a candidate for the District 1 at-large position, who averred at a recent forum that he was for the abolishment of corporal punishment -- as soon, he added tongue-in-cheek, as the conditions that prompted its use had themselves been abolished. At another forum, a candidate started out with a firm statement in opposition to the practice but, when told that upwards of 70 percent of Memphis parents polled in favor of paddling, promptly hedged on that stand.

One of the objections to corporal punishment in the schools is the contention by some, like board member Carl Johnson, that the practice is applied disproportionately to black male students. Some of that is due to the simple fact that African Americans constitute a majority in the system and that males -- for cultural or biological factors or what-have-you -- are historically more inclined than female students to run afoul of school authority. But Johnson is probably correct that the numbers do not jibe comfortably with current racial and sexual ratios in the schools.

Even so, some of the board's other African-American members disagree with Johnson, contending, as did Wanda Halbert, that teachers have privately expressed serious concerns about facing discipline problems if they could not avail themselves of at least the threat of corporal punishment. Up a creek without the paddle: That seems to be the idea.

Participating in one of the recent school-board forums, radio talk-show host Mike Fleming pressed candidates to take a position and led the way by observing that he, as a student, had been paddled. It was unclear whether Fleming meant this as an argument for or against the practice. In any case, he is not alone among the current generation of community leaders to have had such an experience.

Jobe has likened the use of corporal punishment to outmoded forms of behavior in medicine and other fields. It is anecdotal evidence, to be sure, but it is surely less common than it used to be, some generations back, for a mother to put a miscreant child on hold while she went outside to strip a makeshift "switch" from a backyard bush.

Whether paddling is good or bad for the schools or for society at large, it is, and should be, one of the issues of the current election campaign. Let's start solving it there. •



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