Cruel And Unusual Punishment At Schools: From The Strap To Litter Pick Ups

Schoolboy (11-13) sitting on chair outside classroom, head bowed
Ute Grabowsky via Getty Images
Schoolboy (11-13) sitting on chair outside classroom, head bowed

Hands up: if you remember the stinging pain of a ruler or the strap on your palms inflicted by a school teacher hell-bent on doling out punishment to match your dirty deed.

Hands up: if you were forced to write ‘I will not talk/swear/laugh in class’ 100 times in chalk on the blackboard.

These days, Australian schoolkids are punished by detention -- mostly sitting still in class over lunchtime -- or paper pickups, where you spend lunchtime picking up rubbish.

But, for those of us schooled in times prior to the demise of corporal punishment, if we’re not traumatised by the experience, we at least have some entertaining stories to tell.

Corporal punishment was officially abandoned in public schools in NSW in 1990 but it was still used in private schools until 1995. Victoria led the way, abandoning corporal punishment in 1985 in public schools and 1986 in private schools while Queensland abandoned corporal punishment in 1989.

Child and adolescent psychologist Doctor Michael Carr-Gregg from the Young and Well Cooperative Research has his own memories of corporal punishment.

“I went to Sydney Grammar and I was caned once but I remember it vividly because I had done nothing wrong. It reinforced for me that the school was an unjust and stupid place,” Carr-Gregg said.

“My crime was talking but it was actually the kid in front of me. So the teacher threw the duster at me, and it missed and smashed the window. So my punishment was to be caned six times, or ‘the cuts’ as we called it.

"Though it wasn’t really seen as punishment. It was a badge of honour.”

Parenting expert Maggie Dent said corporal punishment caused a lot of emotional scars.

“It’s basically a shaming strategy. Boys are very vulnerable to being excluded and shamed,” Dent said.

"In my counselling work I worked with so many boys who had attempted suicide, self-harmed or did outrageously dangerous stuff.

"A common thread was physical beatings and/or being shamed as young boys.

“They simply have no self-worth and feel useless and hopeless.”

Car-Gregg told Huffington Post Australia the problem with corporal punishment was that it failed to punish.

“There is no such thing as a blanket solution because there is no such thing as a blanket student," Car-Gregg said.

"Today, when schools suspend a student, it serves no purpose. The kids treat it as a holiday.

"What they should be doing is internal suspension. This means the student turns up early to school, is not allowed to join in with his friends at recess or lunchtime, and he stays back later.

“It is very effective because you’re depriving them of something they value -- interaction with their peers.

"So it’s always astounded me as to why schools don’t use internal suspension as the first port.”

In the interest of history, here are some anecdotal stories about corporal punishment compiled by Huffington Post Australia.

It was not difficult to find males who suffered at the hands of the strap or the cane.

Dan, aged 45.

“One teacher would line boys up along a wall and make us hold out our hands for the cane. Being up against the wall meant it was impossible to pull your hand back and avoid the cane. I came up with a method where I’d move my hands to the side so the teacher would whack himself on the legs. We were all scared of him. He’d keep his leather belt hanging off a shoulder so he had easy access to the strap at all times."

Alan, aged 42, Perth

Our maths teacher loved to cane us for the slightest thing, even if you looked sideways at your mate, he’d bring out the cane. He’s also get a book and put it on your wrist, so that he’d miss your veins. One day, I got the cane in maths, then I got it in the next class, English. Then I went to science and I was about to get the cane for talking, when the teacher said, “Your hands are so red. Have you already been caned today?” I said, “Yes, Sir, twice already”.

Matthew, aged 44, Victoria.

I had a teacher who called his cane Betsy. He was much feared. Only boys got the cane and the wounds turned into deep blue blood blisters. This one teacher was very enthusiastic about how he caned us. His name was Mr Knight and he would turn up to the start of the class and then he’d disappear. Then he’d turn up again when kids were talking and he’d find any reason to cane you.

James aged 46 – Scotland

One teacher had a really large strap but when he lifted it up to strap my hands, he hit the light above him and it smashed, there was glass everywhere.

At lunchtime the Catholic boys would fight with the Protestant boys. We’d get back to class bloodied and bruised. The Protestants always won! We’d usually get a caning for that too.

One time I was being naughty and a teacher locked me in an empty class room after school but I managed to escape by jumping off the first floor balcony.

My Dad had been worried about me and came to school to tell the teacher off for locking me in for so many hours. “What if there’d been a fire?” he asked. I didn’t really care, I just wanted to get home for my dinner.

Simon aged 43, Sydney

The primary caner at our public high school in Sydney was the deputy principal. There was one time I did deserve the cane as I’d made a ‘bunger’ out of firecracker and let it off in class. I got the firecracker, wrapped it in masking tape and lobbed it into the corner of the class. It went off with an almighty bang. I got a big caning for that!”

Graham, aged 50, Sydney

I went to a private boys Catholic school and the monks were very brutal in their punishment. There was one monk who not only used a thick leather strap but, for added pain, he would put tacks in the strap. I cannot tell you how much it hurt! I wouldn't say it scarred me for life, but I tell my kids they have it very easy these days.

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