St. Augustine’s Spankological Protocol

One of my favorite teachers in high school — all the kids loved him — was Mr. Richard Bonacquista. He was our Colorado History teacher — no one could make Colorado history more entertaining — and our baseball coach. In any case, one of the things he showed us from early first teaching days — over in mining country in the southwest part of the state — was a wooden paddle.

Now, we didn’t have corporal punishment at Douglas County High School. But apparently they had it over in Durango or what not. The paddle looked well worn and had been retired during his time there. Anyway, the way it worked was that adolescent boys who acted up were given an option. They could either take a swat with the paddle or, if they didn’t want that, it was not problem. All they would do is call the employer of the boy’s father and have him brought up out of the mine to take the boy home. The dad would lose his day’s wages. For some reason, not a single boy took that option.

I thought of that when I read this New Orleans Times Picayune. It follows up on a piece Bobby looked at earlier this month. That story was about how Archbishop Gregory Aymond had forbidden the use of corporal punishment at St. Augustine High School. The piece was fascinating, but only told his side of the story, and hinted at larger social issues. Keep that in mind when you read this lede:

More than 500 students, parents and other supporters of St. Augustine High School’s policy of using corporal punishment marched Saturday morning on an Archdiocese of New Orleans office to press their message with Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who has called on school officials to abandon the 60-year practice.

The protesters, who posted three requests on the locked doors of the archdiocese’s Walmsley Avenue offices, called on the archbishop to issue a “public, unequivocal retraction … of all statements linking St. Augustine disciplinary policies with violence, particularly in the New Orleans community.” …

Protesters on Saturday also demanded proof of the archbishop’s claims that parents have complained about the paddling policy, along with evidence for a study that Aymond has cited to bolster his position.

The archbishop has said corporal punishment institutionalizes violence, runs counter to Catholic teaching and good educational practice, and violates local archdiocesan school policy.

Citing similar concerns, the Josephite trustees who founded and own the high school imposed a temporary paddling ban last year, in circumvention of local school board wishes.

The piece does a good job of covering the basics and wrangling the various complaints of people associated with the school. Many of them say the issue isn’t even so much about the paddle as the rights of African-American parents to educate and discipline in the manner they see fit. But the story also has some interesting quotes from students who support corporal punishment. Then others weigh in:

Disciplinarian Sterling Fleury said the paddle is one of many corrective tools at the school. It is not used every day, he said, but it has value as an “immediate consequence.”

Since the paddling policy was suspended, behavior problems among students have risen, said Dr. Michael Hunter, a physician for the football team. “There are more detentions, more suspensions and more dismissals,” he said.

“I would hate to think it has anything to do with race,” Hunter said. “If the paddle is not causing something detrimental, why take it away?”

Hunter, a 1974 alumnus, said he was raised by a single mother who knew that sending him to St. Augustine would “set me straight.” The school is renowned for producing graduates who have gone on to become civic and professional leaders.

“Young black men are dying in the streets, and we are trying to break that cycle of violence by teaching morals, values and excellence,” said Dwight McKenna, a physician and a 1958 alumnus. “Without St. Aug I don’t know what would have happened to me. St. Aug taught me to be a man.”

It’s all very interesting and nicely written. And the religious and racial themes are developed through the piece. However, I’d like to know more about the specific Catholic arguments for and against corporal punishment and related issues (such as obeying the will of the archbishop). For outsiders such as myself, this is information I don’t possess. I have my own biases with regard to corporal punishment, particularly outside the home, but I know the issue isn’t as cut and dry as we sometimes make it out. For instance, I wrote about a study that showed that limited corporal punishment correlated positively with behavioral and academic outcomes. And religion certainly must affect views on the use and misuse of physical discipline. It would be nice to read more about how religion motivates the various sides in this conflict.

(For an explanation of the headline and art, see here.)

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  • Ann Rodgers

    I’m opposed to corporal punishment in schools, so my sympathies are obviously with the archbishop no matter what his motives are. However, an angle I don’t see examined here is the significant number of Catholic sex abuse cases that too place within the context of school “discipline.” Archbishop Aymond has been the head of the bishops’ committee that dealt with the sex abuse scandal, and I’m sure he’s heard more of those stories than I have.

  • Greg Popcak

    Surprisingly, there is a tradition in Catholic education going back almost 300 years opposing corporal punishment.

    In the mid 1700′s St Jean Baptiste de la Salle wrote, “The birch is used only out of bad temper and weakness for the birch is a servile punishment which degrades the soul even when it corrects, if it indeed corrects, for its usual effect is to burden.”

    In the 1800′s St John Bosco wrote, “Force, indeed, punishes guilt but does not heal the guilty….To strike a child in any way, to make him kneel in a painful position, to pull his ears, and other similar punishments must be absolutely avoided…they greatly irritate the child and degrade the educator.”

    As my wife and I discuss in Parenting with Grace, there is no reason a Catholic educator or parent should ever resort to corporal punishment. It’s bad science, bad theology and bad pedagogy.

  • Dave

    It’s no surprise there are more administrative punishments after the suspension of paddling. In the public system I attended the alternative to the paddle was some number of detentions, with the miscreant making the choice. Obviously with the corporal alternative removed, more detentions will be levied.

  • Julia

    In the late 50s and early 60s, the guys my age in Catholic boys’ high school in my diocese and my ex in a Chicago Catholic boys’ high school were shoved against walls, rapped on the head, hit with erasers and rulers and even had glasses broken. On the other hand, these guys were unruly and pushing against authority.

    None of them complained that I know of and a few consider some of the Brothers as life-long friends. One teacher who the girls also knew from speech contests is invited to our joint reunions. The very blue collar guys in my year produced doctors, lawyers, physicists, a general, accountants, nuclear accelerator engineer, teachers, a US Senator, and social workers. Not shabby. These guys’ fathers, who were lucky if they finished high school, were not in a position to advise them about college and career choices – the Brothers filled that role very admirably.

    Kids from rough neighborhoods often don’t respect men who will back off. Not the ideal situation, but there you are.
    I’ve never heard any accusation against any of the Brothers – either of a sexual nature or real physical harm.

    This connection of physical discipline and adolescent male students is very old. Writings about Roman and Greek classical schooling often mentions cuffing the students.

    I found this interesting Wikipedia comment about the famous Father Phillip Berrigan, of Viet Nam activism fame:

    Philip Berrigan, a Catholic priest, who taught at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans, was another supporter of corporal punishment. Berrigan said that corporal punishment saved much staff time that would otherwise have been devoted to supervising detention classes or in-school suspension, and managing the bureaucracy that goes with these punishments.[17] Parents, too, often complain about the inconvenience occasioned by penalties such as detention or Saturday school.

    In the footnote:

    “Sometimes we sent a student to the principal’s office for a paddling, and I have seen a marvelous clearing of the air with a simple whack on the butt. The offending student realized without resorting to guilt or subterfuge, the seriousness of his transgression.” Father Philip Berrigan, quoted in Allen Johnson Jr, “The Aggressive Pacifist”, Gambit, New Orleans, 31 December 2002.

  • Will

    And I expected to read allegations of what St. Augustine wrote about spanking.