The wooden paddle on principal David Nixon's desk is two feet long, with a handle wrapped in duct tape that has been worn down by age and use. He found it in a dusty cabinet in his predecessor's office at John C. Calhoun Elementary in Calhoun Hills, S.C., where Nixon has been the principal since 2006. He has no idea if the old principal ever used it, but now it sits in plain view for all visitors to see, including children who have been dismissed to his office. As punishment for a "major offense," such as fighting or stealing, students are told to place both hands on the seat of a leather chair and brace for what Nixon calls "a whippin'." Before he begins, though, he sits the child down for a quiet talk about why he, or she, is in trouble. He tries to determine if a deeper issue, such as a problem at home, might warrant a meeting with a counselor. If the child shows remorse, Nixon will often send him or her back to class without a spanking. Otherwise, he makes sure he is calm, and he makes sure his elbow is still. Then he delivers "three licks" to the child's rear end. If the child is a girl, then a female administrator does it. Some of the kids cry. Some are silent. Some want a hug. And after the child is sent back to class, still stinging, Nixon sits alone in his office and thinks about what the child has done, and what he has done. "If I could burn that paddle in my stove," Nixon says, "I would. This is the worst part of my job."
Before Nixon took over "John C," student behavior had gotten so bad that one teacher described it as "chaos." She eventually quit in disgust, pulled her own child from the school, and moved to a different one 45 minutes away. John C is located in a rural stretch of South Carolina near the Georgia border where all but one of the major textile plants have closed, and where the leading local employer is the school system. Nearly 90 percent of the kids at John C live below the poverty line. When Nixon went to his first PTO meeting, only about a dozen parents showed up at a school with 226 students. He still has trouble reaching many families by phone because they can't afford to put down a deposit on a landline. And yet Nixon has managed to turn John C around. It recently earned three statewide Palmetto awards, one for academic performance and two for overall improvement—the school's first such honors in its 35-year history. Not everyone agrees with his methods, but most parents and teachers will tell you he couldn't have pulled off such a turnaround without his wooden paddle.
Still, the mere fact that it works hasn't made spanking kids any easier for Nixon, who's no fire-breathing traditionalist. He's 31, a brownish-haired beanpole with a soft-spoken but determined manner. Married, with an 8-month-old daughter, he taught agriculture to high-school students for six years but had no prior administrative experience. He studied animal science at Clemson, served as state president of the Future Farmers of America, and raised 50 head of beef cattle on his ranch. In 2006, a family friend called about an opening at John C. The school, he heard, was "kind of in bad shape," but he took the job anyway.
Thirty minutes into his first day of school at John C, a father walked into Nixon's office and said, "I want to give you the authority to whip my son's butt." Nixon was surprised, but after he thought it over, he decided to give every parent the same option. The year before he arrived, students made more than 250 visits to the principal's office; order had to be restored. While suspensions take kids out of the classroom for days, paddling could be done in 15 minutes. "What are we here to do? Educate," Nixon says. "This way there's an immediate response, and the child is right back in the room learning." According to school statistics, referrals to the principal's office have dropped 80 percent since 2006. So far this school year, there's been fewer than 50. "I've had parents say 'thank you for doing this'," says fifth-grade teacher Devada Kimsey. "And look at the behavior charts now—there's nothing on them."
Corporal punishment is still legal in portions of 21 states, including South Carolina, but it is rarely practiced anymore. Most education scholars consider it abusive, helpful only in the short term and even predictive of future violence. "This is not a practice for the 21st century," says Nadine Block, executive director of the Center for Effective Discipline in Ohio. "Maybe for the 18th century. An atmosphere of fear is not going to increase learning. Maybe temporarily. But over time, it does not work."
Nixon's policy does not have universal support at John C. On the permission form he sends to parents about paddling, a few have checked "no." "I was spanked as a child," says Deniece Williams, 36, who has a son at John C. "I want to go a different route." The school's mental-health counselor, Heather Hatchett, is equally concerned. "I'm not crazy about it," she says. "A lot of these kids come from violent homes, and kids see this as another violent act." (Nixon winces when Hatchett's words are repeated to him.) Even Nixon's boss, Abbeville County superintendent Ivan Randolph, is unsettled by the practice. "One has to be extremely careful with this," he says. "If it's not administered properly, it could be abusive."
Yet the majority of parents see Nixon's paddle as a deterrent, not a weapon. "I agree with the policy," says Tim Rhodes, 42, who has two children at John C. "Kids know if they do something wrong, they are punished." In Fran Brown's first-grade class last month, a brown-haired boy spat on a fellow student. Miss Brown strode to her computer, drawing a loud "oooooh!" from the class. She typed an e-mail to Nixon, who came right away. "I don't think it's right for kids to take away from the instructed time," says Brown. After a conversation in Nixon's office, the child was paddled at home. Parents are given the option of spanking their child themselves; on rare occasions, they come to the school and use their own belts.
John C isn't as bustling as typical elementary schools. The hallways are hushed as kids move wordlessly between classes, lined up single-file on the right side of each hallway, though they do bop and sashay in muted, youthful excitement. A severe budget crunch means the school will almost certainly have to let some teachers go. Still, John C is in much better shape than the state's woefully underfunded schools from the 2005 PBS documentary "Corridor of Shame," or the Dillon, S.C., school President Obama cited as needing repairs to block out the sound of passing trains. John C, with its sliced tennis balls on the ends of chair and desk legs, is shopworn but pristine.
Nixon has instituted many reforms over the last three years, and he's leery of focusing too much on paddling as a "fix-all." "The best form of discipline," he says, "is praise." He brings pizza for classes that perform well on tests, and he's plastered the teacher's lounge with statistics on each student's performance. In March, he held a school pageant, where boys and girls dressed in their Sunday best and did twirls onstage, with hundreds of parents giggling and snapping pictures.
But all the improvements, says fifth-grade teacher Karen Bass, were built on Nixon's bedrock of discipline. Bass was the teacher who left with her child years earlier. She returned when an administrator told her, "You should come back. It's different now." Bass says she likes her job so much she doesn't use her vacation days. "I'm oh so very pleased," she says. "And I can say that with full confidence because I've been other places."
Kids at the school say the paddle definitely makes them think twice about acting up. Asked if he's afraid of it, second-grader Nathan Hoover says, "Yes! It really hurts." The policy, he explains, is three strikes and you're struck. "I know if I got [paddled at school]," Nathan says, "my mom would whip me, too." Hoover's mother says she would give Nixon permission to paddle her child—parents only get the form if their child commits a major offense—but she's relieved that corporal punishment is only a "last resort." "Some kids see too much of that at home," Hoover says. They're no longer seeing much of it anymore at John C. According to Nixon, the last time he paddled a student was more than a month ago: March 16, after a fourth-grader swore in the cafeteria. Corporal punishment, it would seem, has worked so well at John C that perhaps the need for it no longer exists. Given Nixon's ambivalence toward the practice—indeed, he would not even allow NEWSWEEK to photograph the paddle—could it be that he's already delivered his last whipping? "I hope so," he says. But he quickly adds that there will always be "new kids who need to learn the limits at school." And one way or another, Nixon will make sure they get the message.