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Martinez Quiet on School Paddling

By Hailey Heinz
Copyright © 2011 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          When Rep. Rick Miera drafted a bill to end corporal punishment in New Mexico schools, he thought it would sail easily through the Legislature, getting an antiquated practice off the books with little opposition.
        "We don't allow corporal punishment anywhere except in public schools," Miera said. "It's not allowed in hospitals, it's not allowed in mental health centers, it's not even allowed in the armed forces. Why in the world would we want to have it on the books?"
        Instead of the easy passage he expected, Miera's bill passed narrowly in both the House and Senate after contentious debate, and its fate is now uncertain as Gov. Susana Martinez remains mum about whether she will sign the ban.
        Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell said Tuesday that the governor is getting extensive feedback on the bill and probably won't make a decision until later in the bill signing period. She has until April 8 to sign or veto bills.
        Proponents of the ban say corporal punishment is ineffective, creates a culture of violence and is disproportionately used on students with disabilities.
        Opponents say that banning corporal punishment removes a key tool for teachers to control unruly students and that districts should have local control of their policies.
        "Kids just need a little discipline; there's got to be a little fear," said Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, who voted against the bill. "Fear is a motivator."
        The bill has garnered national attention, including an open letter to Martinez from Ecko Unlimited's Marc Ecko, urging her to sign the ban. Ecko has started a campaign to abolish corporal punishment nationwide.
        According to advocates, more than 100 countries have banned corporal punishment in schools, including developing nations like Afghanistan and the Republic of Congo.
        New Mexico is one of 20 states that still allow corporal punishment, according to the nonprofit Center for Effective Discipline. Within New Mexico, policies differ among districts. Large, urban districts like Albuquerque Public Schools already ban the practice, but more than 30 of the state's 89 districts still allow it, according to an informal survey done by Kelly Waterfall, a New Mexico attorney who mainly represents children.
        Waterfall said corporal punishment first came to her attention when she represented a child in Truth or Consequences who was removed from an abusive home setting, only to witness school faculty hitting other students.
        "It's really hard to be working with kids who are being told, 'You can't be home because of violence,' and yet violence is happening in their schools and it's sanctioned," Waterfall said.
        It's hard to pinpoint exactly how often corporal punishment is used in New Mexico, because there are no central agencies gathering the data. However, Waterfall said her experience as an attorney is that corporal punishment is mainly used in poorer, rural districts.
        The most recent hard data available is from 2006, when the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights conducted a state-by-state survey of corporal punishment. The survey found that New Mexico districts reported 705 instances of corporal punishment that year.
        That survey also found that, nationally, poor children, minorities and children with disabilities are hit more frequently in schools than their counterparts.
        Local experts agree with those findings. George Davis, president of the New Mexico Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, said the academy favors a ban because nearly all the research on corporal punishment shows it does more harm than good.
        "It doesn't work," Davis said. "It creates the problem it's meant to solve, and it models aggression. Children who are corporally punished are more aggressive, less attentive, and have lower academic scores."
        But Sen. Vernon Asbill, R-Carlsbad, who voted against the ban, said local school boards don't want their options taken away. Asbill, who is a retired educator, said he attended a recent meeting of the New Mexico School Boards Association and informally surveyed them on the issue. He said most districts wanted to keep the corporal punishment decision local.
        Asbill also said contemporary teachers have fewer options than they had a generation ago, and the threat of corporal punishment helps teachers keep order.
        "As I look back at my history with education, we have lost lots of discipline in the classroom," Abill said. "And I just hate to take away anything from school boards and administrators that could help with discipline."
        But Davis, the psychiatrist, said other forms of discipline are just as effective. He said attitudes just haven't caught up with that reality.
        "There are many, many ways to control a classroom," Davis said. "We think that the only thing that's gonna work — because we're used to it — is corporal punishment."
        Davis cited Sweden as an example of shifting attitudes. He said Sweden abolished all spanking at a time when a majority of the population favored the practice. Within a generation, Davis said, less than 10 percent of the population thought spanking should be allowed, because they had been exposed to effective alternatives.

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