Based on leadership from the State Board of Education and legislative changes enacted by the General Assembly, lots of attention over the past few years has been paid to policies on bullying prevention in the public schools. Here is an excerpt from the policies of the Robeson County school board: “The board acknowledges the dignity and worth of all students and employees and strives to create a safe, orderly, caring and inviting school environment to facilitate learning and achievement … . All students have a right to be free from fear, harm, and violence while in attendance at school and a school-sponsored activities.”
These are wonderful statements. Although it would be unreasonable to expect perfect implementation of these policy goals, it should be comforting to Robeson’s parents that their schools take their responsibilities to protect students seriously.
There is, however, a major anomaly within the Robeson school board policies, because they also allow teachers and school administrators to intentionally inflict physical pain on students as a form of discipline. Policies refer to this as “corporal punishment” — perhaps because it sounds better than striking a student with a board.
In other words, Robeson has policies against creating the fear of being hit when the perpetrator is a student, but not when the perpetrator is a school official. This “fear factor” is made more vivid by anecdotal reports of a school principal roaming the halls with a paddle.
State law gives local school boards the authority to set policies to allow or not allow corporal punishment. This has been a long-standing highly emotional issue in our state, and it makes sense for the policies to be determined locally. As an outsider, it would be inappropriate for me to recommend changes to Robeson’s policies. This needs to come from local folks, be it the superintendent, the school board, the PTA, or others in the community.
I do, however, believe that the issue of corporal punishment in the county’s public schools should be given serious study. Here are some facts that are worthy of consideration:
n The practice is no longer popular. Last school year, just nine of the 115 local districts actually hit students.
n In the 2010-2011 school year, the most recent year for which data are available, Robeson led the state in the use of corporal punishment, hitting students 359 times, which was five times more than the second leading district, and 40 percent of all the corporal punishment administered statewide.
n While American Indians comprised 48 percent of Robeson’s student enrollment, they received 81 percent of the corporal punishment.
n Similarly, while students with disabilities comprised about 8 percent of student enrollment, they received about 22 percent of the corporal punishment.
n Of all the corporal punishment administered in Robeson, 87 percent occurred in just three elementary schools.
These facts present a disturbing picture of the Robeson public schools. Hopefully, a serious study will provide a rationale for why Robeson’s students appear to be treated much more harshly than their counterparts statewide. As noted above, this study would be best done by the Robeson community itself. Robeson’s students deserve no less.
Tom Vitaglione is a senior fellow with the Action for Children North Carolina.