Breaking School Rules? That’s a Paddlin’

Discipline

Every school has, or should have, rules in place for their students, staff, and the occasional visitor to school grounds. These rules need to set out a fair and consistent standard of behaviour which must be followed by everyone.

Rules for school students are intended to assist in the provision of a safe and supportive learning environment, with clear expectations for conduct. Schools can establish requirements for a variety of subjects, including classroom behaviour, school dress and uniform and use of social media and electronic devices.

Failure to meet expectations for conduct can lead to disciplinary consequences, which reinforce the behavioural standards and deter against future breaches of the rules. Throughout the history of education, there have been a variety of disciplinary consequences for rule-breaking behaviour by students, such as:

  • withdrawal from class – temporary removal of a student from regular classroom activities
  • detention – requiring a student to report to a designated room and remain there for a specified time period
  • suspension – mandatory exclusion of a student from standard instruction or educational opportunities for one or more school days
  • expulsion – permanent removal of a student from enrolment at a particular school
  • exclusion – preventing a student’s admission to a number of schools.

Once upon a time, there was another common consequence of rule-breaking behaviour by students: corporal punishment.

Corporal Punishment – the Most Punitive Army Official

Corporal punishment – also known as ‘reasonable chastisement’ or ‘lawful correction’ under legislation – involved deliberate physical pain being applied via cane, paddle or similar implement, across the hands or the derriere of a student. Legally, it enabled an applicable person charged with assaulting a child in their care (potentially a teacher) to argue it was justified as they were using reasonable force to discipline or correct the child.

As recently reported, one school in the United States (US) is trying to reintroduce the practice of corporal punishment. The Georgia School of Innovation and the Classics recently announced their new discipline policy with ‘paddling’ reinstated as a punitive measure.

The revised policy states that corporal punishment may be used for serious and repetitive breaches of school rules if consent to such discipline is provided by parents. The form sent home to parents clarified that students “will be taken into an office behind closed doors” and “will place their hands on their knees or piece of furniture and will be struck on the buttocks with a paddle”. The school will use a “three strike policy” so the paddling doesn’t happen for the first or second breach, and parents will be contacted before the punishment occurs. According to the school’s superintendent, the new punitive policy will just be another tool in their “disciplinary toolbox”, indicating that a broader behaviour management framework will continue to be implemented at the school.

According to World Corporal Punishment Research, corporal punishment is still permitted in public schools in 19 states in the US, including Georgia. Corporal punishment in private schools is lawful in all but two states. While the exact laws vary between states, in most places where corporal punishment is allowed, the use is negligible. The US Department of Education estimates that 106,000 students were ‘paddled’ in public schools during the 2013-14 school year, and these figures have been progressively declining.

Can Australian Schools Engage in Corporal Punishment?

No adult has an absolute right to punish a child via corporal punishment, and in nearly all Australian jurisdictions the practice of corporal punishment is specifically prohibited, either by legislation, regulation or departmental policy. Corporal punishment by providers or supervisors of an approved education and care service is also prohibited under the Education and Care Service National Law.

Queensland is a major exception – by virtue of section 280 of the Criminal Code Act 1989 (Qld), teachers can use “reasonable” force towards a child or pupil “by way of correction, discipline, management or control”. The character and amount of punishment that may be considered “reasonable” will depend upon the age, gender and physical characteristics of the child. Notwithstanding this, the Queensland Department of Education and Training states that policies banning corporal punishment in government schools have been in place since 1995, although this does not bind the activities of non-government schools, which are instead determined by school systemic authorities.

How can Schools Manage Student Behaviour?

Schools’ behavioural expectations and disciplinary measures have been thrust into the spotlight after a nine-year-old student was reportedly disciplined for refusing to stand for the national anthem during assembly. Due to increasing scrutiny, it is of paramount importance for schools to be reviewing their behavioural guidelines and how these are communicated to students, parents and the broader school community.

All government schools are required to develop and implement rules for actions and behaviour by students, in order to meet their duty of care obligations and provide a school environment that is safe, friendly, informative and free from bullying. Non-government schools are also required to develop discipline policies as a condition of registration.

For example, the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority’s “Guidelines to the minimum standards and other requirements for registration of schools including those offering senior secondary courses” require schools to have polices which explain the school’s approach to discipline and how it ensures procedural fairness, as well as procedures for student suspension, expulsion and exclusion. Under the Western Australian Registration Standards and Requirements, there is a specific standard for Management of Students’ Behaviour, which requires that all students receive positive guidance and encouragement towards acceptable behaviours, and that any discipline or punishment conforms to the principles of procedural fairness and the prohibition of unlawful discrimination.

Schools must have a clear and accessible policy for school rules and for student discipline. The stringency with which school rules are applied will depend on the particular school and broader parent and community expectations.

But punitive measures are only one component of a school’s behaviour management framework for students. Other aspects of such a framework may include:

  • implementing communication protocols for school rules, including by publishing a code of conduct in a clear accessible location, and organising briefings and discussions with parents, particularly prior to school excursions and other off-site functions
  • introducing individual behavioural management plans for students with ongoing behavioural concerns
  • providing counselling and pastoral care services
  • developing religious and cultural exemptions from certain rules or school activities, including acceptable behavioural alternatives.

About the Author

Kieran Seed is a Legal Research Consultant and School Governance reporter. He can be contacted here.

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