Violence in the Schoolhouse: The State of Corporal Punishment
Corporal punishment was the preferred method to keep America’s students in line for much of American history. Paddling, spanking, and other forms of violent punishment have slowly been replaced by other techniques such as positive reinforcement. However, today corporal punishment still exists in many American schools, with disastrous consequences for youths, families, and the United States as a whole. These consequences range from mental and physical harm to children, a tarnished international image, harm to families, and a discriminatory punishment system.
Where Does Corporal Punishment in American Schools Stand Today?
Corporal punishment has existed for many centuries. It was used in the Middle Ages to punish school children and until 1948 was used in Britain to punish minor criminal offenders. Some infamous examples of corporal punishment include the flogging of Christ and the use of flogging by the British navy during the 18th century.
The good news is that corporal punishment is on the decline. During the 2006-2007 school year 223,190 students received corporal punishment in comparison to approximately 1.5 million students in 1976. However, nineteen states (shaded red in Figure 1 below) still allow corporal punishment.
Why Should The U.S. Ban Corporal Punishment?
Aside from the more obvious arguments against corporal punishment, such as the negative effects on children’s ability to learn and so on, the administration of corporal punishment has discriminatory factors associated with it. Table 1 below outlines some striking statistics. Overall, African Americans disproportionately receive twice the amount of corporal punishments that their percentage of school population would suggest. It is hard to convince young African American students to behave in school when they are unfairly administered corporal punishment by their discipliners.
Differently abled students also bear an unfair burden. One study showed that in Tennessee disabled students are twice as likely to be paddled as their peers. This is especially true for students on the autism spectrum, since their disability interferes with their ability to follow what would otherwise be considered appropriate social behavioral norms.
Aside from the discriminatory nature of corporal punishment, the negative effects on children are severe and sometimes irreversible. A study by the Brookings Institution revealed that students who are subject to corporal punishment at a young age are more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol. These students are also more likely to imitate such abuse later in life through domestic violence or emotionally abusive relationships with their children. The study claims that these students “may learn to associate violence with power or getting one’s own way.” Children who are punished physically—regularly or severely—are more likely to develop mental health issues later in life.
Corporal punishment can be physically devastating for children as well. According to Time magazine, “[t]he Society for Adolescent Medicine has documented [...] severe muscle injury, extensive blood-clotting (hematomas), whiplash damage and hemorrhaging” in cases of corporal punishment. These gruesome injuries have sometimes caused parents to give up jobs to homeschool their children, thereby negatively affecting students’ family lives. Not to mention that these injuries unnecessarily contribute to skyrocketing healthcare costs when they require medical attention.
The effects that corporal punishment has on students boil down to one simple fact: in the United States of America—one of the most developed and democratic states in the world—one of the only groups of citizens who can be beaten legally are school children. This, of course, exhibits a terrible confusion of our priorities.
The last reason for banning corporal punishment is the simple fact of embarrassment. Over 70 nations worldwide have laws that explicitly prohibit corporal punishment in schools. The United Nations has criticized countries that still allow corporal punishment saying that “there is no doubt that corporal punishment is a violation of children’s rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child because it is constitutive of violence that causes . . . suffering.” That the U.S. has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child is further proof of its negligent policy towards children. Therefore, the U.S. should A) ratify the Convention, and B) respect its basic obligations towards its citizens under the age of 18.
If Corporal Punishment Were to Be Banned, How Would We Do It?
A simple answer would be for schools to just stop doing it. No law requires schools to paddle or hit children. However, with that route being perhaps too far away, legal action seems necessary.
States without specific regulations prohibiting corporal punishment could amend their laws to define it and outlaw it. These states should take a similar route as Iowa and New Jersey, for instance, both of which ban the practice in both public and private schools. As Figure 1 showed, the states in which corporal punishment still lingers are typically more conservative states. This is not a coincidence, Republicans in general tend to view the practice more favorably. So all else being equal, passing laws in these states will be theoretically more difficult than passing laws in more left-leaning states that do not already ban it.
The federal government could use its spending power to incentivize schools or state governments to ban the practice. A program similar to Race to the Top or to a statute such as Title IX where schools will lose funding if they do not abide by prohibitions on corporal punishment could be effective. Alternatively, and to the benefit of those in the disabled community, Congress could introduce an amendment to the Americans with Disabilities Act that specifically protects disabled students from corporal punishment in schools. If a lawsuit arose that claimed that corporal punishment constituted child abuse, and was thus unconstitutional, the Supreme Court could overturn its 1977 ruling that allowed corporal punishment via the “Trop” standard which allows for evolving standards of decency in America society or another similar mechanism.
Regardless of which legal or social path is taken to end corporal punishment in American schools, it needs to be done quickly. Hundreds of thousands of students are affected every year and this practice is clearly detrimental to society.