Evidence of literal whipping boys is scant but abounds for those of the figurative variety. The term is rooted in the notion of boys, educated alongside princes, enduring corporal punishment for the royals’ failings. Depictions of the practice appear in writings tracing to the first century, but historians are divided on the veracity of the accounts. Metaphorical whipping boys, meanwhile, are everywhere, public education among them.
Dueling distortions on this subject demonstrate ideological prisms’ inability to provide unaltered views. One side sees public schools as deficient, a cause for the effect of society’s larger ills. Another considers schools a battered martyr, whipped for society’s deficiencies and a symptom of them. Truth frequently resides in the vast space between poles staked in extremes. So it is with public education.
How to punish transgressing students, fittingly, remains a point of contention. Spanking in schools has been banned in most states, including this one, in response to mounting proof not only of corporal punishment’s inefficacy but of its detriment. Still, punishing older students and those committing greater offenses remained a complex problem. Suspensions became more common, but this had the effect of removing from school systems students perhaps most in need of being there.
Suspensions lead to lower graduation rates and increase the likelihood of incarceration and struggles in other facets of life, according to a wide range of studies. Racial disparities are common. A UCLA study found that blacks were more than three times as likely as whites to be suspended. In many cases, “willful defiance,” an offense sometimes subjective in nature, triggered suspensions. The punishment appeared to be defeating public education’s larger purpose in readying children to function as adults.
Franklin County administrators have become aware of out-of-school suspensions’ impact on classrooms. More than 12% of the county’s high school students missed more than 10% of the school year in 2017-18, when 1,823 days of out-of-school suspension were assigned. A total of 47 students served that punishment for more than 10 days each.
Administrators developed a solution: Open a secondary learning center, repurposing a storage building on the Benjamin Franklin Middle School campus. Instead of missing school, students would serve their suspension at the center.
That initiative has produced impressive results. In its inaugural year, the center prevented 1,824 absences, according to data program coordinator Susan Badger recently shared with the school board. Launched in October, the program served more than 260 students last school year, more than a third of them middle schoolers and nearly two-thirds, high schoolers. Few students were repeat offenders.
Similar moves are registering similar effects across the country. Public schools frequently are, as their supporters attest, surrogates for society’s greater woes. But sometimes criticisms are warranted. Examples are those directed at punishments such as spankings and suspensions meted out in draconian fashion. Studies prove these measures harm society and the community as well as students.
Franklin and other school districts across America deserve ample credit for finding smart, sensible alternatives. Give them all an A-plus.