Saving Our Children from Violence When Schools Are the Abusers

Feb 1, 2021 12:00:00 AM


Each of us has been that lone, righteous educator at the dinner party—that overzealous, overtired reality-checker among adults whose jobs don’t include ensuring the emotional and intellectual hygiene of the next generation. Each of us has called out racism or transphobia on social media. (After all, “silence is violence,” you once retweeted.) And each of us understands the stewardship of compassion as our sacred duty amid all necessary heroism of 2020.

What I mean to say is this: Teachers can’t save lives from an infectious disease—we can’t mandate mask-wearing or administer antiviral therapies—but [pullquote]we can save the hearts and minds of our students from the contagions we’ve been trained to battle since the beginning: ignorance, injustice, violence ...[/pullquote] 

So, what is “violence,” exactly? No, really—what is it? At the 2019 National Teacher Leadership Conference in Orlando, Florida, I asked a circle of some of our country’s most celebrated educators that same question. And they struggled to agree on an answer. Their thinking in this regard was too unpracticed, too confused by decades of unrealized socialization.

Their agreement demanded some honest self-reckoning.

It’s no wonder, then, that for all those who “liked” or “shared” the first post in this series on disciplinary paddling in America’s schools, a similar number scrolled past its irrefutable point that corporal punishment is educational malpractice. If teachers aren’t ready to reconsider the use of corrective violence against students—if they haven’t had that same self-reckoning conversation with themselves—then they’re not ready to crusade for a change in education policy. 

And let’s get one thing straight: [pullquote]Paddling a student is an act of violence—lawful or not—that disproportionately affects children of color and children with intellectual or developmental disorders.[/pullquote] It’s a practice that can induce toxic stress—like that of ACEs—which ultimately leads to increased aggression, impulsivity, and defiance. And despite these facts, over 109,000 students are paddled in public schools across America every year. 

So, how do we work to ban corporal punishment in schools when so many teachers, administrators and school board members aren’t willing to engage? (Never mind changing the handbook!)

For that answer, I sought an expert: retired school psychologist Nadine Block. 

Advocating for Children’s Rights

Nadine Block is the tireless crusader who worked alongside Governor Ted Strickland to legislatively ban corporal punishment from use in Ohio’s school system in 2009.

This legislative victory did not come quickly, though. For 24 years Block visited the state capitol, where she urged state legislators to outlaw corporal punishment. During those years, she brought with her a paddle and photographs of children’s bodies bruised by administrators. Ohio’s public broadcast reporters eventually became familiar with Block and her indefatigable spirit. They asked, “Will you be here in a wheelchair someday?”

Her answer: “If I have to be.”

When Block began her mission to outlaw schools’ disciplinary paddling in Ohio, an average of 68,000 students were paddled per year in the state. Her determination—despite the indifference of teachers, administrators and legislators—has saved hundreds of thousands of children from the physical and emotional harm of corporal punishment.

Next Steps for Teachers

Of course, we’re not all in the position to meet with the governors of our respective states. But don’t worry: Block has advice for people, like you and me, who live in states and communities where the elected officials—from our school board members to our state legislators—serve only to protect the status quo. 

  • Strategize for Success. Block was quick to share with me a quotation from the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “Social change in our society is incremental,” she said. In other words, a nationwide ban on schools’ disciplinary paddling isn’t happening any time soon, nor is a statewide ban in a red state like Mississippi. Block suggested that activists seek opportunities in states that are Democratic-led. “Colorado,” she told me, “has a Democratic governor, a Democratic Senate, and a Democratic House ... Yet, no one is working to ban the practice.” This is because Colorado reports few to zero incidents of corporal punishment per year. So, why fight the practice there? Block explained that the initiative will restart the national conversation about corporal punishment, create a critical mass of states that have passed laws banning it and apply pressure to the rest. 
  • Organize for Outreach. Sure, bloggers inspire—but grassroots organizations transform that inspiration into progress. As the founder of The Center for Effective Discipline, Block encourages teachers to organize, build websites and work towards educating the public about the detrimental effects of hitting children. For example, The Center for Effective Discipline celebrated “National Spank Out Day” on April 30th for a number of years as a way to spread awareness about the harms of physical punishments and share information about alternative disciplinary practices. The nonprofit also published an annual “Top Hitter Award of Dishonor” to Ohio school districts with the highest reported number of students who were paddled. “Those administrators didn’t like us very much... but it got people talking!” “And remember,” she said, “once you have a nonprofit you can introduce a bill, and that’s the only way to engage the legislators and the media sometimes.”
  • Focus on Education. “When people see a paddle, they can’t process their memories right away. And if they can retrieve a memory ... it’s likely one of pain, fear or shame.” In other words: victims of corporal punishment are less likely to accept the indisputable science regarding its harm than those who graduated without being struck. Because the school policy in question can mirror the disciplinary practices in homes, a quick condemnation of corporal punishment only elicits defensiveness. “Teachers are not experts on parenting; they are experts on teaching. The conversation must be compassionate, and we must dissociate it from any conversation about parenting.” 
  • Engage with Others.“You have to talk to people who support you and to those who don’t,” Block told me, “and you have to center the conversation on what’s best for our children.” Block used the word “our” emphatically. I asked her, “What would you tell teacher leaders from states where corporal punishment is already banned? I mean, why should they care?” Block did not hesitate to answer: “Because we’re supposed to care about all our children ... Teachers from states where paddling is already banned need to engage those from where it is not. We should set an example for our children ... that we can solve problems using words. We need to have that difficult conversation.”

The Lone, Righteous Educator

That difficult conversation—as mapped for you in the first part of this series—can feel like a lonely road. And the strategizing, organizing and campaigning required to effect change thereafter can feel even lonelier. 

But don’t give up. The size of your voice and the reach of your influence have absolutely no bearing on your being right or wrong. There is a path laid before you, by those like Nadine Block, to follow. And each uncomfortable dinner party, where you confront corrective violence and invite the self-reckoning of others, is a necessary step toward a world made safer for our students.

Block’s crusade to ban the paddling of students in Ohio wasn’t deemed “relevant” in 1984—nor was it in 1994 or in 2004, for that matter—but it was never less vital. 

If 2020 has proven anything, it’s that no matter our privilege, no matter our state, no matter our perceived lack of relation to the problem—Americans can’t afford to waste time not caring.

This post is the second in a series dealing with corporal punishment in schools.

Tate Aldrich

Tate Henderson Aldrich is an educator, writer and advocate. He is the 2017 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year and a National Council of Teachers of English author. This includes the publication of his facilitation method, “The Context/License/Privilege Protocol: Students’ Identities and Relevant Conversations”—a dialogic tool that promotes equitable classroom discussions. Currently, Tate works at the University of Arkansas. Tate’s passions include promoting trauma-informed instructional practices and advocating for children’s rights.

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