Columns » Max Brantley

Kids count


The legislature cares, really cares, about fetuses. It finds new ways every year to protect them until they enter the world. Follow-through is another matter. Schools only get improved at the point of a court gun. Oh, sure, legislators want to protect kids from the care and attention of people who happen to be homosexual. They want to dumb down textbooks to protect them from knowledge of the real world. They want teens raped by their fathers to get Pop’s signed, notarized permission for an abortion. They want youthful foreign visitors to be denied the state’s help in times of need. There’s another thing our legislature wants to do for kids – beat them. The legislature will come and go again without even a pro forma effort to add Arkansas to the honor roll of states that ban corporal punishment in schools. The majority, 28, now ban it. Arkansas leaves corporal punishment to school districts, with a predictably haphazard application. All the school districts in Pulaski County ban it. Several other large school districts, if they don’t ban it, rarely use it. Some small districts use it enthusiastically. Searcy, for example, known for a church-oriented culture centered on Harding University, is regularly among the state’s leaders in paddling (only third behind Trumann and Osceola last year, however). “It works,” a Searcy principal once told me. In fact, there’s no scientific evidence that says corporal punishment “works.” If you look at the Southern states where it is most favored – Arkansas paddles more, on average, than any state but Mississippi – you might argue the opposite, based on poverty, education outcomes, violence, domestic abuse and other indicators. The punishment isn’t fairly applied. High school students get whipped quite a bit, but there are no age limits, bottom or top. (Hitting a 17-year-old has about the same productive value as beating your head on a stump.) Some schools ban beatings of disabled kids. Some don’t. The statistics consistently show that black students are paddled in numbers disproportionate to their enrollment. Some teachers whip harder than others. Those who advocate an end to the barbarism say even progressive legislators who oppose corporal punishment are reluctant to get involved. The “faith-based” certainty of proponents is a large hurdle. Many progressives also say there are bigger issues. I know a social worker who’s studied corporal punishment for years. He argues that there is no greater issue. He thinks use of corporal punishment has a bearing on almost everything else, including economic development. “Sure this is a great place to build an auto plant,” he says. “We raise kids who respond mainly to brute force. We miss the opportunity to develop kids’ communication skills. We teach them to respond to fear rather than to do right for right’s sake. We make them better suited for manual labor than more creative labors.” Forget nuance. “Hitting kids with a board is dangerous and a bad thing and there’s nothing good to show for it,” the social worker says. “People just aren’t brave enough to step forward and try to prevent corporal punishment.” What kind of place says it is a crime to hit a pregnant woman in the stomach, but lawful, desirable even, to whip children until they cry?

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