My first week teaching high school in rural Mississippi, I witnessed my principal walk down the cafeteria hallway with a three-foot paddle, hitting the palm of his hand as he screamed, “Who am I going to get? Who am I going to get?” The students just stared at him. Some in fear, others in amusement; they all knew what was coming. Someone was about to experience corporal punishment.
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child defines corporal punishment as “any punishment in which force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort.” The UN committee promotes the prohibition of corporal punishment worldwide. Currently, corporal punishment is banned in 42 countries. However, 19 states in the United States still employ corporal punishment in schools. The question that must be asked is, who is facing corporal punishment and is it effective? An analysis of federal data from 2009 to 2010 showed that 838 children were exposed to some form of corporal punishment on average each day in public schools, leading to over 150,000 instances a year. A civil rights report conducted by the U.S Department of Education found that in 2011-2012, that number had increased to 167,000 students who had received physical punishment, such as paddling, during the school year. Due to the rising trend in incidences, corporal punishment in schools must be addressed.
The states that use corporal punishment are in the southeastern region of the United States. In the same civil rights report, Mississippi and Texas made up 35 percent of reported cases of corporal punishment. Adding Alabama, Arkansas, and Georgia to the mix accounted for over 70 percent of all children disciplined with physical force in the U.S. According to the U.S Department of Education, black students make up 16 percent of students enrolled in public schools, but are 35 percent of those physically disciplined. Black children are three times more likely to receive corporal punishment than their white peers. This is reflected in a chart below:
This disparity in corporal punishment however can be broken down by state. The Brookings Institution stated that black students are “twice as likely to be struck as white students in North Carolina and Georgia, 70 percent more likely in Mississippi, 40 percent more likely in Louisiana and Arkansas.” Clearly there is an issue of racial disparity in regards to corporal punishment. It is unclear whether its use is due to it’s effectiveness or a result of discriminatory behavior.
Proponents of corporal punishment argue that it is an effective disciplinary tool. As a teacher, I was told that the use of corporal punishment was a “cultural component” of Mississippi. However, research shows that corporal punishment is not only administered by racial lines, but it also has long-term health consequences. Pediatrician, Donald Greydanus, testified before a congressional hearing in 2010, on the effect corporal punishment has on academic success. Greynadus argued that physical discipline makes the school environment, “unproductive, nullifying and punitive,” and teaches that, “violence is acceptable, especially against the weak…” Furthermore, the International Journal of Business and Science found that the overuse of corporal punishment can have negative effects on children, such as stimulation of aggression, development of strong anxieties, imitation of methods of punishment, feeling of helplessness, aggression, social withdrawal, feelings of inferiority, substance abuse and many more. The report also found that adolescents that have experienced corporal punishment show higher levels of depression and feelings of hopelessness.
Our education system is designed to build students into productive members of society; clearly corporal punishment has unintended consequences and is a short sighted disciplinary tool. Supporters of this method, however, will argue that the policy is already set and has proven to be legal in the judicial system. In Ingraham vs. Wright, the Supreme Court decided that it is the state’s right to determine the legality of corporal punishment. However, despite this there are steps that can be taken to diminish and decrease the use of corporal punishment in schools.
In many school districts, administration can deliver corporal punishment without impunity. As a teacher, I have witnessed how harmful this lack of accountability is as it leaves the punishment of a student at the faculty member’s discretion and/or bias. Rather than allowing administrators to automatically have the right to use corporal punishment on students, the federal government should create a policy that requires parents to opt-in to corporal punishment at the beginning of each school year. This would severely decrease the ability of school districts to use corporal punishment because it would require parents to come in to the school and sign a paper that allows their children to be physically punished. Such a policy would make corporal punishment inconvenient and it would also force parents to question the efficacy and morality of allowing their child to be physically punished by school leaders.
Thus far, the most recent piece of legislation introduced was H.R. 2268, Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act of 2015, but has not yet been taken up for a vote on the House floor. It’s time for the policy of corporal punishment to be confronted so that all students can attend a school environment that is just, safe and focused on building them into the leaders and learners of tomorrow.