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Bill aims to end corporal punishment at schools

July 11, 2010

Bill aims to end corporal punishment at schools

by Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life

A nun’s swift rap across the knuckles was once a hallmark of the Catholic educational system in America. But in recent decades, the practice has made more appearances in comedic routines than classrooms, a relic of a time gone by when most teachers belonged to religious orders.

Introduced by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., the bill aims to put a stop to teacher-administered spanking, making corporal punishment illegal in any school — including private religious ones — that receives even a trickle of federal funding.

Almost half of all Catholic schools in the U.S. receive government money in the form of the federal nutrition program and federal money to bus students to and from school. Religious school groups, have few worries about the bill. “I think corporal punishment has not been an issue for a long, long time,” said Brian Gray, a spokesman for the National Catholic Educational Association.

The proposed bill comes amid a growing debate among psychologists on whether spanking is an effective and safe punishment tool.

Currently, 20 states allow corporal punishment in public schools. Where it is allowed, corporal punishment is more likely to be disproportionately applied to minority students (36 percent) and disabled students (19 percent).

“Psychologists don’t all agree that spanking is always harmful to children,” said Kim Mills, a spokeswoman for the American Psychological Association. “Some psychologists have a belief that certain levels of gentle punishment may be effective.”

The American Psychological Association’s official stance is that corporal punishment should not be allowed in schools, day care centers or other institutions.

Juli Slattery, a family psychologist at Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Focus on the Family, suggests tempered spanking on young children as one of many disciplinary tools available to parents. The bill, she said, is indicative of American society’s collective disagreement on how to punish its children. “You can’t get a consensus, she said. “It was much more agreed upon in our parents’ generation.”

The responsibility for discipline, Slattery said, should ultimately rest with parents or guardians, not schools. But she does worry that bills like McCarthy’s encourage a child’s disregard for consequences. “I think it’s a step in downplaying discipline,” she said.

The legislation could set a worrisome precedent for more government regulation of private schools, said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the Orthodox Jewish group Agudath Israel of America.

“We are certainly not enamored of corporal punishment,” Shafran said. “But we are concerned with the rights of religious schools.”

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