U.S. Department of Education urges states: Stop paddling students

In its waning days, the Obama Department of Education is attempting to rid American schools of the outdated and discredited practice of paddling and caning students.

The U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to governors and chief state school officials  this week urging them to end corporal punishment once and for all.

The U.S. DOE cannot compel states to outlaw corporal punishment; it can only counsel against it. In a conference call with reporters Monday, Education Secretary John King condemned corporal punishment as "harmful, ineffective and often discriminatory" and "criminal assault and battery if experienced by adults."

(The American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics agree with King on the ineffectiveness of swatting students.)

King said more than 110,000 students endured corporal punishment in 2013-14. Many were African-American males. African-American girls are also likely victims.

On the press call, Fatima Goss Graves of the National Women’s Law Center said, while 15 percent of the girls in U.S. schools are black, they account for 41 percent of the girls who experience corporal punishment. Graves said paddling is used for minor student infractions, including dress code violations, tardiness and running in the cafeteria.

“Our schools are bound by a sacred trust to safeguard the well-being, safety, and extraordinary potential of the children and youth within the communities they serve,” King said. “While some may argue that corporal punishment is a tradition in some school communities, society has evolved and past practice alone is no justification. No school can be considered safe or supportive if its students are fearful of being physically punished. We strongly urge states to eliminate the use of corporal punishment in schools– a practice that educators, civil rights advocates, medical professionals, and researchers agree is harmful to students and which the data show us unequivocally disproportionally impacts students of color and students with disabilities.”

Georgia is among 15 states that specifically allow corporal punishment. Georgia leaves the decision of whether to use corporal punishment to the districts. Districts in metro Atlanta have long ago retired the paddle, but corporal punishment persists in some rural Georgia counties.

A video earlier this year of two Jasper County educators attempting to hold down a crying 5-year-old to paddle him brought international condemnation. Nearly 6 million people viewed the heart wrenching cell phone video recorded by the child's mother.

According to 2015 Georgia data, as reported by districts, 5,849 students were disciplined in school using corporal punishment. The total number of incidents of corporal punishment was 9,713. Pulling out only students with disabilities, corporal punishment was inflicted on 991 students. The total number of incidents of corporal punishment among children with disabilities was 1,760. (Some kids were paddled more than once.)

Most of the states that sanction paddling are in the south or west, Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming. Twenty-eight states and Washington, D.C, prohibit it. (Seven states neither expressly permit nor ban corporal punishment.)

In its official statement, the US DOE said:

There is a wide consensus from teachers’ groups - including both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association – as well as the National PTA, medical and mental health professionals, and civil rights advocates that corporal punishment has no place in our schools. Eighty organizations, include the National Women’s Law Center, are releasing a letter this week calling on states and policymakers to end this practice.

“It is a disgrace that it is still legal in states to physically punish a child in school. Students are subject to corporal punishment for something as minor as cell phone use or going to the bathroom without permission. And students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately victims of physical punishment,” said Fatima Goss Graves. “Not only does corporal punishment inflict pain and injury, it also stifles students’ ability to learn. Policymakers must eradicate violence against schoolchildren and instead foster learning environments that are safe and productive. This barbaric practice must end.”

In the short-term, students who receive this form of punishment show an increase in aggressive and defiant behavior – the opposite of the intended outcome. In the long-term, students who experience physical punishment in school are more likely to later grapple with substance abuse and mental health issues, including depression, personality disorders and post-traumatic stress.

Corporal punishment in school is also associated with poorer academic outcomes. Research has shown, for example, that corporal punishment can affect students’ cognitive functions, lessening brain development, verbal ability, problem-solving skills in young children,  and lowering academic achievement.

The letter builds on the Obama Administration’s work with states and districts through its Rethink Discipline campaign, which has focused attention on the importance of school disciplinary approaches that foster safe, supportive, and productive learning environments in which students can thrive.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.