Mississippi is one of 19 states that still allow corporal punishment in school, with more than 70 school districts still practicing it. Lafayette County, where I grew up, recently discussed the possibility of removing it. Not everyone supported the idea.
“Just having it in the policy and some students knowing they might get paddled might keep them from doing things they shouldn’t,” said board member Mike Gooch at the meeting. “I know it did for me.”
But the last 20 years of psychology (along with the American Academy of Pediatrics) says otherwise. No data have demonstrated a connection between corporal punishment and corrective behavior at all, other than an “increased immediate compliance” that also increases aggression and anti-social behavior, often to lifelong effects.
Let’s not be misled by the language: Corporal punishment isn’t a euphemism for disciplinary action. It’s a euphemism for beating children.
And in the case of Lafayette County, it’s not just children — it’s the youngest and most vulnerable children. According to Superintendent Patrick Robinson, Lafayette High School hasn’t used corporal punishment in over a decade, but the district’s elementary schools used it “about eight or nine times” last year.
That’s actually pretty low for Mississippi, which sees about seven of its public school students paddled every year. That’s the highest rate in the 19 states that still practice it, altogether recording a total of 163,333 beatings in the 2011-12 school year.
Black students are twice as likely as white students to receive a paddling, and Black boys receive the most of all — and not necessarily as a “last resort,” either. Students with disabilities are the other most vulnerable population, facing a shocking five times higher chance of receiving corporal punishment than students without disabilities.
Some states have moved to protect students with disabilities, but Black students who aren’t diagnosed with disabilities remain largely unprotected, and it remains to be seen how stringently protections will be enforced. There are some exceptions: Last year, the Greenville School District, in a majority-Black county in the Mississippi Delta, banned corporal punishment in its schools completely — but only after an unsavory video surfaced of a teacher pulling a special education student by the hair.
The fact is, spanking and corporal punishment is still popular in the U.S., especially in the South. As far as the doctrine of “in loco parentis” goes, many Mississippians still quote the phrase “spare the rod, spoil the child.” Three-fourths of Greenville parents and employees surveyed support the use of spanking and paddling at school. This is only a little higher than the 64 percent of adults that a 2016 Gallup poll found to approve of spanking at home, although less than a quarter of national respondents support its use at school.
Perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate the policy at the national level. What does it mean for a society to import domestic violence into publicly funded institutions for our children’s education, spaces already subjected to militarization, yearly shootings and patrol by school resource officers (SROs)? Our students already have to worry about AR-15s. Do we really need them worrying about wooden paddles, too?
Let’s not overlook that students across the country — statistically speaking the same uniquely vulnerable populations that are over-subjected to the paddle — are routinely abused and detained by the police, who are now in a firm majority of schools. There’s no evidence that SROs prevent shootings, but they do lead to more violent arrests of students — in some cases up to five times as many, even as juvenile crime rates outside of school plummet. Mother Jones reports that the 2011-2012 academic year saw 92,000 student arrests (of which Black students accounted for 31 percent, despite comprising just 16 percent of the population), and from 2010-2015, 28 students were seriously injured and one student murdered.
“Zero-tolerance” policies have failed our students. According to the ACLU, disproportionate — and in the case of Mississippi, clearly discriminatory — violence increases the likelihood that a student will end up disengaging and dropping out, even linking it to other forms of domestic violence later on.
The Southern Poverty Law Center agrees: “We do see corporal punishment as just one piece of the school-to-prison pipeline and the disproportionate disciplining of students of color,” the organization’s legal director, Rhonda Brownstein, told Education Week.
The majority of countries in the world, including almost all of Europe and Latin America, have outlawed corporal punishment. Our students at home receive beatings while neighboring students in Canada and Mexico get nothing but universal health care. Does that sound like the best for our kids? Our children are often taught that violence is never the answer. So why do we still hit them when they’re wrong?
As long as the federal courts allow it to exist — perhaps they could overturn the 1977 ruling Ingraham v. Wright that ruled it constitutional in the first place — the United States, as usual, proves itself exceptional only in its capacity for violence.