ATLANTA -- One hundred and fifty years ago, the first state in the union outlawed corporal punishment in schools.
Today, 30 states have outlawed the practice of paddling, spanking, and hitting children as a form of discipline. Georgia is not one of them.
11Alive News filed a Freedom of Information Act with the State Board of Education. It uncovered 21,792 incidents of corporal punishment occurred in the 2010-2011 school year.
You can see the complete school-by-school report by clicking here.
"The specific, personal stories that you hear can make you cry, can make you sad -- a lot of damage done to a lot of children," Debbie Seagraves, director of the Georgia chapter of the ACLU, said. The ACLU has met with families affected by extreme cases of corporal punishment. Some of their stories have stuck with Seagraves.
"I remember this one where a child was held down and beaten with a wooden board. The skin was broken, the tailboard was broken, and he was hospitalized. These are real stories," she said. "And understand, when we talk about corporal punishment, we're talking about any punishment that is designed to cause pain. Pain as a deterrent."
Georgia law, few guidelines
The Georgia law sets few guidelines, turning over complete control to local school boards. The Georgia law reads:
"All area, county, and independent boards of education shall be authorized to determine and adopt policies and regulations relating to the use of corporal punishment by school principals and teachers employed by such boards."
And then in Section 20-2-731 lays out some general guidelines, including the following:
(1) "Corporal punishment shall not be excessive or unduly severe".The law gives no specifics about what excessive or unduly severe means or defines what level of corporal punishment is appropriate.
(2) "Corporal punishment should never be used as a first line of punishment." Every school district I spoke with in researching this story quoted this as part of their policy.
(3) "Must be administered in the presence of a principal or assistant principal, or the designee". Some school districts, but NOT ALL, told me they SOMETIMES used a designee to make sure a female administrator paddled a female student. This was not always the case.
(4) "The principal or teacher who administered corporal punishment must provide the child's parent, upon request, a written explanation of the reasons for the punishment"
(5) A doctor's note can excuse a child from corporal punishment
Georgia law allows each school board to decide if they will allow corporal punishment within their school district, but even within school districts, how the policy is implemented varies greatly from school to school.
Each individual principal can decide whether to ban the practice from his or her own school. Several superintendents told me even through their school boards voted to allow the practice, they had some principals who decided not to allow corporal punishment in their schools.
Also, while each district passed general policies that mirrored the state law, none had written, specific rules about exactly how to implement corporal punishment.
Laurens County reported 1,761 incidents of corporal punishment in the 2010-2011 school year, the highest number in the state. Schools Superintendent Jerry Hatcher pointed to the size of the county as part of the reason for those numbers in a phone interview. The rural middle Georgia county has 6,000 students.
When asked if they had any specific rules about what kind of object they used for paddling, how many times, or where to hit, Hatcher said no, but admitted they did not paddle students younger than Pre-K or "swat them more than three times."
Corporal punishment distribution
Counties surrounding Atlanta reported zero incidents of corporal punishment. Just outside that Metro circle, the numbers jump.
In Polk County, we found something unusual: 212 incidents of corporal punishment reported less than 90 minutes from Atlanta. More than half were in Rockmart High School.
The explanation: students asked for it in lieu of other discipline.
Greg Teems is the director of student services for Polk County. "It's not the assigned punishment. This is a student that had an infraction that was going to go to ISS for 2 or 3 days or go home for OSS and then either a student will request corporal punishment or a parent will," he said. "I think they were very accommodating with the parental requests for corporal punishment. I do know, I've checked data so far this year and it's flipped in the opposite direction, mainly because they're just not as willing to paddle this year. "
The Georgia law says any parent that sends in a doctor's note can have their child excused from corporal punishment. But in Polk County at the beginning of every year, a note goes home. Parents opt in or out.
"We're not going to do it if a parent says don't use corporal punishment on my child, than we're not going to use it," Polk County Schools Superintendent Marvin Williams said. "Some parents ask us to use corporal punishment."
Williams recalls times he had to send his own students for discipline while working as a teacher: "I think there are some students corporal punishment is effective. I think, as a dad, corporal punishment has been effective with me as a parent. I also think you can run a good school without corporal punishment."
Again, I asked him: "There are no rules that say use this particular object?"
"This many times?"
"Anything like that?"
"I don't think there's an ambiguity of the definition," he said. "I think it's use that there might be some difference of opinion in the schools, but I have to rely on the principals and trust my principals to do the right thing in situations.
What it means for your child
Clinical Psychologist Dr. Cathy Blusiewicz says that's too much trust when it comes to your child.
"I just think there are too many unanswered questions. The situations are too varied," she said. She points to new research that shows corporal punishment does not work to curb bad behavior. Instead, taking away freedoms is more likely to teach children to model good behavior.
"Where else in our society do you get paddled for breaking a rule? I mean, if you break a driving law, you lose freedom," Dr. Blusiewicz said. "So why do we still have that idea for high school students or younger students to have that kind of discipline in the school system?"
There's another dynamic to consider. Can Georgia schools adopt anti-bullying messages while maintaining corporal punishment? Can a child do something wrong in the classroom and be physically punished and expected to deal with his or her problems in a non-violent way on the playground?
Dr. Blusiewicz says no. "There's a real conflict there," she said. "And we really need to ask ourselves as adults, do we want to be in the business of doing that of causing that kind of harm?"
Corporal punishment and the future
In 2011, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) introduced a law that would stop federal funding to schools that allowed corporal punishment as a way to push a federal ban. The law found widespread support in online petitions, but little real support on Capitol Hill. It never became law, but it could be reintroduced in the future.
In Georgia, Tte focus remains on local control. According to the ACLU, 102 counties in Georgia still practice corporal punishment.