The Times-Picayune - New Orleans, Louisiana March 6, 2011
St. Augustine High School corporal punishment debate is about more than the paddle
By Bruce Nolan, The Times-Picayune
Each weekday morning, 12-year-old Jesse Moore III rises at 5 a.m. at his home in Violet and carpools 14 miles to St. Augustine High School. Many days, when band practice is extended, he plays his trombone until 6:30 p.m., when his parents collect him for the ride home.
For this, they pay about $6,000 a year. But it's worth both the money and the effort, said his mother, Jennifer Doane. The family enrolled Jesse last fall as soon as St. Augustine opened its new sixth grade.
"They accept no less than the very best," she said. "No less than excellence."
Given that fierce appreciation, parents like Doane, as well as alumni and students, are pushing back at Archbishop Gregory Aymond's desire to see St. Augustine abandon corporal punishment, a tradition that has been part of its character-building tool kit for 60 years.
Aymond has said corporal punishment institutionalizes violence and runs counter to both Catholic teaching and good educational practice. It also violates local archdiocesan school policy.
Given Aymond's quiet but clear reservations and the school's celebrated reputation for success, debate over St. Augustine's methods has raged.
But it's not all about the wooden paddle.
In fact, according the Rev. John Raphael, the president of St. Augustine, it's not even mostly about the paddle.
In Raphael's view, Aymond and the Josephite trustees, who last fall imposed a temporary paddling ban at the school they founded, have dismissed St. Augustine's record of success, and more deeply, African-American parents' desire to educate and discipline their children in their own traditions.
Absent any scandal or evidence of abuse, "it is insulting to suggest that our 60 years of experience with kids would have left us harming them and continuing to harm them," Raphael said in an interview.
To St. Augustine parents and alumni, the push to end corporal punishment sounds paternalistic, Raphael said. "It's as if critics are saying, 'We know what's best for you. We're going to help you raise your children. Obviously you disagree with us, but we know better.' "
He continued: "Why do African-American families have to beg permission from folks in another culture to raise their kids in the Judeo-Christian tradition that has sustained our culture for so many generations?"
Part of that independence was on display Friday morning, when St. Augustine's 650 students assembled in the schoolyard, nominally in support of the paddle, but more broadly in support of allowing the school to make its own way in forming students.
Raphael and others said the deeper issue became more inflamed last week in an unlikely place: Aymond's weekly video address to the Catholic community on the Archdiocese of New Orleans' website.
There Aymond unveiled an upcoming church initiative to counter the street violence and murder rate in New Orleans -- among the nation's worst.
Then he pivoted to the subject of St. Augustine. While praising the school's accomplishments, he explained his theological and psychological objections to corporal punishment.
Aymond acknowledged that there might be cultural differences in play and said he had not come to a final conclusion. But he also said: "I truly believe that we teach violence by being violent."
Some viewers said they saw that as an implied linkage between St. Augustine alumni and street crime.
The video spread rapidly.
"I can tell you I was livid over that," said Vernon Martin, a retired corporate human relations executive who helps run the St. Augustine alumni chapter in Atlanta.
On Friday Aymond apologized for any unintended suggestion that St. Augustine's discipline had anything to do with crime. They are separate topics that he thought he was treating as separate. "Clearly, the people of St. Aug are faith-filled leaders in our community."
Beyond that, he said, he has asked school administrators and representatives of the Josephites to meet privately with him to work out differences "in as reconciling a way as possible."
Board was trumped
The lines of disagreement are more complicated than they first appear.
Aymond raised his concerns about corporal punishment shortly after his arrival in New Orleans in 2009, but Raphael said the Josephites, a Baltimore-based order of Catholic priests who founded St. Augustine in 1951, had already begun to signal reservations about the practice.
At Aymond's request, St. Augustine's local board of directors last year thoroughly reviewed disciplinary policy, including corporal punishment, in conversations with parents, alumni and faculty. The review panel included Monica Applewhite, a social worker and national expert on safe environments representing Aymond's interest.
The result was a general reaffirmation of corporal punishment, with two modifications: an end to collective punishment and the designation of certain faculty members to wield the paddle, Raphael said.
But on the eve of school's opening, the Josephite trustees in Baltimore, who had been in conversations with Aymond, trumped the local board and banned the paddle.
"We're in a period of indefinite moratorium," Raphael said in an appearance on WBOK radio last week.
"That really put us in a difficult and awkward position," and produced internal strains that still endure, said alumnus Troy Henry, the engineer and former mayoral candidate who leads the school's local board.
A spokesman for the order was not available for comment Friday.
Beyond issues of governance and mutual respect, of course, is the matter of the paddle itself and its place in the classroom.
Without corporal punishment this year, Raphael told the radio audience: "Kids who ordinarily would not get Saturday detentions are now getting Saturday detentions. Kids who would not get a suspension are now getting suspensions. And unfortunately, I have to say, there may have been one or two students dismissed who probably would not have been dismissed."
Raphael pointed out that corporal punishment in legal in 20 states.
"That there is a debate, there's no question," he said. "But there certainly is no morally definitive, jury-is-in, the-question-is-over" resolution.
Meanwhile, the Center for Effective Discipline, a national nonprofit advocacy group that educates against corporal punishment, said it long ago identified St. Augustine on its website as the lone outlier among Catholic schools still embracing corporal punishment.
Robert Fathman, a clinical psychologist who helped found the movement, said an enormous body of educational research rejects the utility of corporal punishment.
So do dozens of professional associations of doctors, nurses, psychologists, teachers, principals and parent groups collected on the center's website.
"The paddle is not a tool. The paddle is a weapon. It's designed to inflict pain," Fathman said. "Not a single developed country in the world but us allows a teacher to hit. Not in Europe, Mexico, China, Japan, Canada, all of Europe, Israel."
Fathman said there are other ways to administer effective discipline.
"And I can tell the (St. Augustine) alumni that alumni of other Catholic high schools achieve success without being hit."
Yet for many, including Martin and Doane, the paddle has proved to be a minor but indispensable part of the St. Augustine way.
It teaches quick accountability: "For every action there is a reaction," Martin said.
"I want the paddle," said Doane, the mother.
But at the moment, Raphael said, he sees a deeper challenge.
"It's not the paddle that makes St. Aug," he said.
"St. Aug will stop being St. Aug if ... (we) decided that because someone else doesn't like what we do, we say, 'Well, there's nothing we can do.' "
Archbishop Gregory Aymond, St. Augustine High School and Louis Armstrong's ghost
by Jason Berry | Contributing Op-Ed columnist
Archbishop Gregory Aymond made a hard but necessary call in telling St. Augustine High School officials to halt a disciplinary tradition of paddling students who misbehave. Some St. Aug alumni recall how getting whacked, back in the day, was a lesson to set them straight. Today, the St. Aug community defends the practice as a storied school's tradition.
This is a "right vs. right" clash, framed by traumatic realities across a racial divide. And it still leaves a reality each side must confront.
Shortly after becoming archbishop, Aymond approved a legal settlement in which the church paid compensation to adults who were abused decades ago at Madonna Manor and Hope Haven, institutional homes across the river for youths from unstable families.
The unwritten story is how other people went through such facilities and got support that helped them make better lives.
Nevertheless, in Canada, Australia and Ireland, governments contracted with the church to staff and operate "industrial schools." Survivors' accounts of the cruelty by authority figures in those schools, decades after the fact, sparked an epic crisis in Ireland, a 1998 House of Commons investigation, major financial settlements to victim-survivors in those countries with government bearing some of the cost, and heavy media coverage. Physical brutality often stood apart from sexual abuse; paddling escalated into sadistic beatings.
Archbishop Aymond was responding to that reality, rooted in a blind culture of clericalism that has caused massive fallout for the church. He made the right decision over the easier road of silence. Standards of school discipline are crucial, but in a popular culture steeped in violence, schools need therapists and social workers to help unruly students see self-restraint and learning as values to follow. No school worker should use force except in self-defense.
The message from St. Aug alumni -- that tough discipline helped mold standards they carried into manhood -- has undeniable appeal in a time when fewer African-American boys have fathers at home, and the media idolize rappers and jocks whose bravado rarely translates into the ethos of Nelson Mandela or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. Consider, too, that St. Augustine is an oasis of learning in a downtown neighborhood, once synonymous with a sturdy Creole culture, now struggling to survive. Middle class families left in the 1970s for New Orleans east, L.A. or Atlanta. A brutal drug culture took root before the 2005 flood did heavy damage. Today, swaths of the 7th Ward are bombed out and dangerous.
In many battered neighborhoods, the archdiocese has shuttered properties that could be redeveloped for community use. This is an infrastructure issue the cash-strapped city cannot solve.
In 1912, Louis Armstrong, age 11 and essentially fatherless, was arrested for shooting a gun. The court sent him to the Colored Waifs' Home (later Milne Boys' Home.) He got his first horn, learned music and valuable lessons in a three-year stint. Years later, in interviews and his memoir "Satchmo," he credited the home with turning his life around.
The city has nothing like the boys' home that saved Louis Armstrong. Night after night, Police Department sirens scream after another youngster is shot dead over smack or macho posturing. The drug world lures them from boredom, poverty, fractured homes.
Armstrong was baptized in 1901 at Sacred Heart Church on Canal Street, a large complex shuttered since Katrina. If leaders of Zulu, Rex and the eight other carnival krewes for which the St. Augustine Purple Knights Marching 100 Band are a parading mainstay were to come together, raise funds and work with the archdiocese, St. Aug leaders and the city to create the Louis Armstrong Home at Sacred Heart (or another church), it would be an anchor for at risk youth.
The city needs several such homes in the worst neighborhoods, staffed by competent social workers.
The archdiocese is uniquely positioned with property and Associated Catholic Charities social workers. St. Aug alumni have clout. So do carnival krewe leaders. The Louis Armstrong Home would not be the silver bullet for all urban ills, but it could lift those who need a hand, not a paddle, to make a life that works.
Jason Berry is author of "Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church," forthcoming in June. He can be reached at www.JasonBerryAuthor.com.
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