Can we end corporal punishment?
Every year, tens of thousands of students in American are paddled in school, and more than a dozen states still allow teachers to hit or strike their students.
Recently, a lawmaker in Kentucky, Steve Riley, has been trying to ban the practice, according to the Washington Post.
“When someone is doing something wrong, the most important thing is to change their behavior. There are more effective measures to change students’ behavior than striking them,” Riley told the Post.
I would go further than Riley. In my mind, we should ban the practice of physical punishment at the federal level, and the next reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act would be a great legislative vehicle to outlaw corporal punishment.
I have been writing about the topic of paddling in schools for years. Indeed, one of my first pieces for US News and World Report was about paddling, and I thought I’d share that story from the archives here:
Ben Line didn’t think the assistant principal had the strength or the gumption. But he was wrong. The 13-year-old alleges that the educator hit him twice with a paddle in January, so hard it left scarlet lines across his buttocks. Ben’s crime? He says he talked back to a teacher in class, calling a math problem “dumb.” A spokesman for Ben’s Texas school district refused to comment on the case, citing privacy issues.
Ben is one of 80,000 kids in the state who are hit each year, according to 1998 Department of Education data, and one of close to 400,000 students across the country. The number of students paddled—the most common form of physical discipline—has dropped by more than half since 1988. But 23 mainly Southern states still allow it, and it’s still controversial, with vehement opponents and staunch defenders.
The practice made headlines when Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, lobbied for an amendment to an education bill to keep educators from being sued for doling out that local school boards should decide whether to permit paddling. The corporal punishment provision was stripped from the bill, but the debate isn’t over.
When someone is doing something wrong, the most important thing is to change their behavior. There are more effective measures to change students’ behavior than striking them.” - Steve Riley
effects of physical punishment
Southern educators tend to be the strongest proponents of corporal punishment in schools, and the reasons are no surprise. A 9-year-old girl kicked and tried to bite Dallas teacher Charlotte Boyd in May 2000. Boyd’s inner-city school has banned the paddle, but she would like it back to settle her rowdy third graders. “I don’t want to injure the kids, but I do want their little butts to sting,” says Boyd, 57, who has been teaching since 1968. “I want them to know, after everything else has failed, I can inflict some physical pain.”
A dose of pain can indeed stop misbehavior, says Murray Straus, a sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire and author of Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families and Its Effect on Children. In a fellow researcher’s study on parental spanking, 40 mothers kept logs of their toddlers’ misbehavior and their punishments. Spanking delayed the next misbehavior by about three hours, he notes—although not more successfully than other forms of discipline, like a “timeout.”
The problem with corporal punishment, Straus stresses, is that it has lasting effects that include increased aggression and social difficulties. Specifically, Straus studied more than 800 mothers over a period from 1988 to 1992 and found that children who were spanked were more rebellious after four years, even after controlling for their initial behaviors. Groups that advocate for children, like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Education Association, oppose the practice in schools for those reasons.
Why does paddling persist? Susan Villani, a school psychiatrist in Baltimore, says teachers often don’t know how to discipline children effectively, so they opt for the easiest method—a smack with a paddle. That certainly gives them an extra edge in the struggle over who runs the classroom, teacher or student. With states pushing high-stakes tests, some teachers say they have to stress drills at the expense of more engaging lessons, and bored kids are more likely to act out. Not to mention, the biblical axiom “spare the rod, spoil the child” still resonates in the South.
Is it punishment or child abuse?
In extreme cases, say psychiatrists, a teacher’s physical punishment of a child is the equivalent of child abuse. Consider DeWayne Ebarb,10,who was allegedly struck more than 50 times over the course of eight weeks this school year for infractions as insignificant as breaking a pencil point. His mother admits that her son, who has been diagnosed with a hyperactivity disorder, also made faces and teased other kids, but says he never hit another student. The family has filed a suit against the Sabine Parish, La., school district. Superintendent Dan Leslie denies any cases of abuse, saying that no educator in his schools intended to do any bodily harm.
But parents typically don’t prevail in courts, according to psychologist Robert Fathman, president of the National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment in Schools. Most rulings about corporal punishment rest on a 1977 Supreme Court decision that rejected the argument that paddling was cruel and unusual punishment.
If the school district allows paddling, then it’s hard to fight it in court. But try explaining that to Jonathan Curtis, 7. He claims that in April, a staffer in his Demopolis, Ala., school paddled him for picking his nose. His parents are reportedly considering a suit and the school district is investigating, but police say the case is closed.