Monday, April 17, 2017

Corporal Punishment Does Not Belong in Our Profession by Dr. Michael Flanagan

Last year a video of a five-year-old boy being paddled by Georgia school administrators went viral, renewing the debate about corporal punishment. Corporal punishment is defined as “any time physical punishment is intended to cause pain or discomfort”. Watch this video of this child, pleading not to be spanked because he had missed too many days of school, while his mother is forced to watch and threatened with arrest if she intercedes. Beside the revulsion most of us feel witnessing the actual act of paddling, we also know that this action will only result in that child hating school, probably forever.

Yet, there are those who still adhere to the old adage “spare the rod, spoil the child”, believing that corporal punishment is an important means for maintaining a positive school tone.They not only practice it, but still cling to it as a viable means of discipline. Students learn best from respect and encouragement, not fear and pain. Corporal punishment has no place in our profession. When an educator is in a position of power over children, our greatest tool is compassion.

Georgia principal paddles 5 year old

A recent NPR article and its readers' comments revealed that there is ardent support for the use of corporal punishment as a means of school discipline in certain parts of the United States. How is it that so many still support the use of physical abuse as a means of discipline? Some teachers, not properly trained or proficient in non-violent disciplinary methods paddle children out of sheer frustration. Yet watching that video, it is hard to argue that this “punishment” is not in fact abuse. Striking children, at least as far as many teachers are concerned, is a form of weakness and ignorance. It is a means of revenge and used to force submission. How can we as a society ever effectively combat child abuse if we continue to allow it to occur in the one place where children above all else should be protected and feel safe? Their school.

The United Nations resolution against corporal punishment defines it as:
“any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light. Most involves hitting (“smacking”, “slapping”, “spanking”) children, with the hand or with an implement – whip, stick, etc.”.
But despite this international resolution, and the fact that corporal punishment is recognized as a human rights violation by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of a Child, it is legal in school districts in 22 states.

Corporal punishment is regularly used in 19 states; 15 states expressly permit it, while another 7 do not prohibit it. It is illegal in 28 states and Washington DC. The majority of the states that still permit corporal punishment are Southern states. Nationally, there were 163,000 cases of corporal punishment during the 2011-12 school year alone. Alabama paddled 19,000 students in 2013-2014, and Texas subjects more than 30,000 students a year to corporal punishment. Of the 19 states where corporal punishment is legal in schools, 11 states were former Jim Crow states, 14 states are Right To Work States and all went Republican in the last presidential election.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Ingraham v. Wright (1977) that states had the right to paddle students without a hearing. This statute remains despite the ACLU’s strong stance against the use of corporal punishment as a violation of a child’s civil rights, and the U.S. Department of Education -- as recently as 2016 -- urged states to end corporal punishment practices. Although the policy under Betsy DeVos is unclear at this time, she is a supporter of school choice and vouchers for charter and religious schools. This would indicate a partiality towards empowering local and state decisions over federal mandates.

Corporal punishment has long-term negative effects on student social and academic success. Research shows that punishment negatively affects a student’s academic performance and does not decrease inappropriate behavior, while positive behavior supports and reinforcement of good behavior do. States where schools paddle students have lower achievement and graduation rates than states where they do not. Students who have been subjected to higher rates of corporal punishment show increased incidence of incarceration, psychiatric treatment and substance abuse.

Nationally students with disabilities are 50% more likely to be paddled. Students with disabilities comprise only 14% of the total student population, yet make up 19% of those receiving corporal punishment. In some districts in Alabama, students with disabilities are 67% more likely to be violently disciplined than those without disabilities. This violent, often bruising, form of discipline is usually in direct violation of their federally-mandated IEP’s. Boys are also much more likely than girls to be paddled in school.

Corporal punishment disproportionately affects minority students, reflecting the systemic racism within the United States in general, and our educational system specifically. Black students on average are 51% more likely to be paddled than white students. Alarmingly, the racial disparity between Black and White students subjected to paddling increases to as much as 500% in certain school districts. Thus statistically, African-American male students with disabilities have the highest rates of corporal punishment than all other demographics.  

Even in the face of this overwhelming research, many national polls show strong support for the use of corporal punishment by parents, with more than 70% of people approving of the spanking of children. There are millions of parents who physically discipline their children, and most parents feel that an immediate spanking for a dangerous behavior, such as running into the street and almost getting hit by a car, is understandable. But parents also feel that this is very different from abusing children. Among those who do support corporal punishment in schools, there are identifiable correlations between low socioeconomic status, religion and race. Significantly fewer people who support corporal punishment at home feel it is appropriate in schools.

Most states where corporal punishment is legal have regulations on who can administer corporal punishment. All states have some procedural safeguards, such as only using a paddle or switch, and most districts (but not all) have protocols for parental opt-outs. However, In states where corporal punishment is legal, teachers are usually immune from prosecution. Teachers in those states are also less likely to speak out against abusive practices because of Right to Work laws. On the other hand, in states like New York where corporal punishment is illegal, not only can a teacher be fired for engaging in it, but they can be arrested and prosecuted.

Professional educators, by definition of their positions and the power vested in them by the state, are in loco parentis. While school administrations are empowered and expected to exercise some of the rights of a parent when students are in their care, violent discipline only teaches children that physical pain, fear, and retaliation are the preferred methods for dealing with inappropriate behavior. It ultimately makes children more aggressive; spanking simply reinforces the inappropriate behavior for which the child is being punished. Violence only begets more violence.

Educators must call out those in our ranks who perpetuate this Dark Ages mentality, and repudiate those who promote and defend corporal punishment. Corporal punishment can no longer be given credence as an acceptable disciplinary technique, and it must be clearly categorized as the bullying of children. To those who refuse to adhere to common sense and research, I wish them karmic justice. The children you paddle will one day be adults, and you may forget what you did to them, but they never will. Those children will be emotionally scarred for life. Education happens through love and respect, not through pain and bruising. Corporal punishment does not belong in our classrooms.


  1. I am in onenof the states where it is allowed and teachers are immune. Are there any organizations parents can support whoncould provide legal help recently a local lady's son came home with health issues and injuries after a paddling. DHR was ready to prosecute until they found it was a teacher.

  2. I think the more disturbing the behavior of a child, is the more in pain and the child in need of our love, care and understanding.