Looking at the practice of using the strap from a 2019 perspective it seems almost inconceivable that this form of punishment was a common practice in our Ontario schools for more than 100 years. Even when opponents loudly condemned this practice and lobbied to ban the strap, there was, for many years, fierce, ongoing opposition from many segments of society, including teachers’ unions, school boards, and many parents. But at last the anti-strap lobby won the battle and corporal punishment was no more.
In to-day’s schools the pendulum has swung 180 degrees the other way, perhaps too far, from some people’s perspective. Students have become untouchable in today’s schools. Teachers may be disciplined, reprimanded, suspended, or fired for using physical contact with students when attempting to control their behavior. Meanwhile, teachers, principals and school boards have earnestly tried to find the right balance for humanitarian, effective school discipline. But there is nothing particularly innovative, for example, about the Ontario Ministry of Education’s “progressive discipline.” The current consequences, or punishment, for unruly behavior were in vogue long before the strap was banned. Modern discipline still amounts to requiring a student to complete an assignment, giving him a detention, or a suspension, or in serious cases, an expulsion. The only new twist is that social workers are now available to offer counselling, a role that teachers and principals used to play.
I was a witness to corporal punishment as a young student, and as a vice-principal. I could have legally used the strap early in my career as a teacher, and for a time, as principal, until it was banned. Whenever people asked me if I had ever strapped a student, my answer was always the same. I don’t beat my own kids with a strap and so why would I physically punish other parents’ children? I was among the biggest cheer leaders when this barbaric practice was taken out of our schools.
On the day that I retired I retrieved the strap from my last school and took it with me as a souvenir. One day, my twelve-year-old granddaughter, Anna, was looking through my desk drawer. She pulled out the strap. “What’s this, Papa?”
My answer really shocked her. “That is a strap that teachers used to hit kids if they misbehaved.”
“Why would teachers want to do such a terrible thing to their students?”
“It’s a long story, but the idea actually originated in the Bible. It declared that parents should beat their children to bring them up properly. And so, for hundreds of years many parents believed that if they spared the rod, or strap, they would spoil their children. When public schools first started in Ontario, the strap, with the parents’ blessing, became the officially-approved way beat students who misbehaved at school. It remained in our schools for over 100 years, until the Ontario government banned it in 1973.
“How horrible”, commented Anna.
“I agree.” Gripping the stiff piece of leather in my left hand I tapped my upturned palm of the other hand before returning the strap to my desk drawer.