School teachers and administrators in 22 states may legally punish children by intentionally causing them physical pain severe enough to leave bruises, cause hematomas, and send as many as 20,000 kids a year to the emergency room.
But U.S. Education Secretary John B. King wants them to stop. In a November 22, 2016 letter to governors and chief state school officers, King urged states to ban corporal punishment altogether. “We simply cannot condone state-sanctioned violence against children in school,” wrote King.
Corporal punishment is expressly permitted in 15 states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming. In seven states—Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, and South Dakota—no state law prohibits such punishment. American Indian and Alaska Native students get hit at higher rates than do others. Here’s what the numbers look like in 6 of the 10 states with the largest AI/AN populations according to the 2010 U.S. census. (The other 4 states do not allow corporal punishment in schools.)
In North Carolina, AI/AN children are 12 times more likely than average to suffer corporal punishment; in Arizona, 7 times more likely, and in Oklahoma, more than 1.5 times as likely. AI/AN kids in Florida and Texas receive corporal punishment at about the same rate as kids on average. Michigan is the exception—AI/AN kids get paddled only about half as often as average and this applies to boys as well as girls.
In the other states, boys are more likely than girls to receive corporal punishment and AI/AN boys are more likely to be punished this way than are other boys. In Arizona they are five times more likely to get paddled and in North Carolina, more than 10 times as likely, according to the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights 2011-2012 data, the most recent years for which comparative data is available online.
“A Violent Education,” a 2016 report from Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, states, “Among those 13 states [that paddle more than 1,000 students per year], Native American students make up 1.2 percent of the student body, but 2.4 percent” of the students who get hit. The report continues, “In those 13 states, Native American boys are 3.2 times more likely to be paddled” than other children in those states.
In North Carolina, Oklahoma and Arizona, AI/AN boys in special education are far more likely to experience corporal punishment than are other boys with special needs. And, according to the U.S. Department of Education, “children of color—particularly African-American and American Indian youth—are identified as students with disabilities at substantially higher rates than their peers,” making AI/AN boys even more vulnerable to prejudicial discipline practices.
King said: “These data and disparities shock the conscience” when discussing the bias in the implementation of corporal punishment.
Department of Education spokeswoman Dorie Nolt tells ICMN, “We want all students—including Native students—to feel safe and supported at school. Our Native students, like all students, thrive in educational settings that are supportive and welcoming with teachers who are culturally competent. Research shows that the use of corporal punishment has detrimental consequences for students. Educators, civil rights advocates, medical professionals, and researchers agree it is harmful to students. Secretary King’s recent letter to states on corporal punishment reflects his commitment to ensuring all students, including Native students, are able to learn in a safe environment, free from the threat of physical harm.”
Corporal punishment includes “hitting, slapping, spanking, punching, kicking, pinching, shaking, shoving, choking, use of various objects (i.e., wooden paddles, belts, sticks, pins, or others), painful body postures (such as placing in closed spaces), use of electric shock, use of excessive exercise drills, or prevention of urine or stool elimination,” according to Donald E. Greydanus Professor of Pediatrics & Human Development at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, in testimony during a 2010 House hearing on “Corporal Punishment in Schools and its Effect on Academic Success.”
Rates of corporal punishment in schools may actually be two to three times higher than the official statistics indicate due to underreporting by states. Further, the numbers only say how many students were punished, but do not indicate how many times each of those students was subjected to what in other circumstances would put the adult administering the punishment in jail.
In Oklahoma, paddling prison inmates is cruel and unusual punishment, but paddling students is allowed, in keeping with the 1977 Supreme Court ruling in Ingraham v. Wright that found “reasonable” corporal punishment in schools did not violate a student’s Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment or her Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process.
Many states have laws that specifically protect school personnel from facing charges of physically abusing children, even though in any other circumstance hitting someone with a typical paddle (a piece of wood roughly 15 inches long, between 2 and 4 inches wide and 1.5 inches thick, with a 6-inch handle) would constitute assault and the aggressor would be subject to arrest.
In Missouri, for example, corporal punishment is defined as not being physical abuse. Spanking that is “administered… in a reasonable manner… is not abuse,” says state law, according to the 2016 report “Corporal Punishment in U.S. Public Schools: Prevalence, Disparities in Use, and Status in State and Federal Policy,” by the Society for Research in Child Development.
Corporal punishment in schools is banned in 125 countries, including most of Western Europe, and the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner states, “Violence against children, including corporal punishment, is a violation of the rights of the child. It conflicts with the child’s human dignity and the right of the child to physical integrity.”
Nonetheless, corporal punishment remains deeply entrenched in American education, in part because teachers (and parents) believe it is conducive to learning. In a 2001 School Safety Study prepared by the Arizona Department of Education, corporal punishment is listed as a worthwhile school policy. In the words of one teacher, it is a successful method of maintaining discipline. “I think with the abolishment of corporal punishment in the classroom we just let the control go right out the window…. Spare the rod and you'll spoil the child.”
But this thinking has been disproven. Corporal punishment in school does not lead to less misbehavior, better classroom discipline, or increased academic achievement. It has exactly the opposite effect because it causes physical harm and psychological distress and fear that impede learning for all students, not just those being subjected to the punishment.
Greydanus testified: “The vast majority of the literature shows it is an ineffective method of correcting child misbehavior. It simply doesn’t work… There is also no evidence that punishment leads to improved control in the classroom. The literature suggests and shows the opposite is true. Children do not develop improved moral character. They do not increase respect for teachers. They do not develop enhanced controls. In fact, the research is very clear that the opposite is occurring.”
Among the organizations calling for a ban on corporal punishment in U.S. schools are the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, American Psychological Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, the ACLU and Human Rights Watch.
Congress has failed seven times since 1990 to pass federal legislation to ban corporal punishment in schools, the most recent in 2015, so it is a matter that must be dealt with at the state level for the foreseeable future. King’s letter is this administration’s attempt to move states to reconsider their position on a practice that brings far more harm to children than was ever intended, that does not and cannot help them be better students, or citizens. It is an issue that parents, grandparents, friends and community leaders can discuss with their school districts, especially in light of the new federal education law, Every Student Succeeds Act, which mandates tribal consultation in matters affecting the education of American Indian and Alaska Native students.
This story was originally published December 16, 2016.