Immediately following the massive student walkout to protest gun violence on March 14, I was stunned to read an article about three students who had been paddled — literally smacked on the backside with a wooden bat — for participating in the protest. All three were enrolled in a public high school in Greenbrier, Arkansas, and according to the brief news account, they had “chosen” this punishment over in-school suspension so that they would not miss class or lose eligibility to participate in team sports.
Nineteen states explicitly allow a teacher, principal or other school staffer to penalize students with physical force.
Can this be legal, I wondered?
Turns out that the answer is yes, at least in the 19 states that explicitly allow a teacher, principal or other school staffer to penalize students with physical force. These states — Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming — say that physical punishment is a tried-and-true technique to maintain order and discipline in the public schools.
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However, this does not tell the full story since even though 31 states have ostensibly outlawed corporal punishment, the federal Department of Education allows school authorities to use “physical restraint or seclusion in situations where a child’s behavior poses an imminent danger of serious physical harm to self or others.”
Eighty-six percent of those subjected to physical punishments have disabilities.
This vague statement has allowed physical force — or in some cases placing a child in seclusion for an unspecified period of time — to be used in every nook and cranny of our nation. Susan Mizner, director of the Disability Rights Program at the American Civil Liberties Union, told Truthout that while “manhandling” takes place everywhere, it is not evenly distributed among students. Indeed, according to Mizner, the most recent information compiled by the Department of Education’s (DOE) Civil Rights Data Collection showed that 86 percent of those subjected to physical punishments have disabilities even though students with disabilities — whether in special education or mainstream classes — make up just 12 percent of the total enrolled. In addition, most of those who are corporally punished are children of color.
But even this disturbing figure is highly inaccurate, Mizner explains. Using California as an example, she says that the most recent statistics, from the 2013-2014 academic year, report 3,475 cases of physical restraint or punishment in the “Golden State’s” public schools. “The problem is that California has close to 100 programs called ‘non-public schools.’ These are for disabled kids that the regular public schools don’t want in their classrooms,” she adds.
According to the California Department of Education, non-public schools are publicly funded and provide services to children who are “struggling academically, behaviorally, and socially.” Most are affiliated with group homes and are geared to children in foster care. Oversight, Mizner says, is spotty, with the state’s department of education simply recommending that “social workers review the records of youth enrolled in non-public schools to ensure youth are appropriately enrolled” before the start of each academic year.
“We know that restraint is frequent in non-public schools, kindergarten to grade 12,” but, inexplicably, the Department of Education does not have a way to collect data from them, Mizner adds. “This means that the restraint figures that we’ve been given are just the tip of the iceberg.”
Worse, no one knows if these off-the-grid programs exist in other states since reporting by “non-public schools” is not required by the federal Department of Education.
This grey area aside, Mizner and other advocates emphasize that corporal punishment does not improve behavior and is instead traumatizing to students, turning classrooms from safe sites where scholarship and inquiry can flourish into places full of danger and fear. This finding has been repeatedly corroborated by psychologists and child welfare advocates including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children’s Defense Fund, the National PTA and the Society for Research in Child Development. Nonetheless, resistance to ending the practice is fierce, with an estimated 75 percent of parents believing that hitting a child is a necessary corrective for “bad” behavior.
These parents typically rationalize the use of corporal punishment by citing two biblical passages: Proverbs 13:24 which warns that “Whoever spares the rod hates his (sic) son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him,” and Proverbs 22:15, which states that “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of correction shall drive it from him.”
Punishment Versus Discipline
There is a big difference between punishment and discipline, Gestalt psychotherapist and trauma specialist Janice Hassan, who was herself hit as a child, told Truthout. “Discipline is about teaching the child about right and wrong,” she says. “Punishment involves power over someone, and while the victim may appease the authority in the short term, physical punishment usually does not change them in the long term.”
Injuries include abrasions, bruises, broken bones, hematomas, hemorrhages, muscle injuries, pain and whiplash.
Donald E. Greydanus, professor of Pediatrics and Human Development at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, further outlined the potential damage caused by corporal punishment at a congressional briefing. Typical after-effects, he testified, can include depression, low self-esteem, magnified feelings of guilt, drug and alcohol abuse, and anxiety disorders. “The use of corporal punishment in the school environment falsely and perfidiously reinforces physical aggression as an acceptable and effective means of eliminating unwanted behavior in our society,” he told federal lawmakers. “Our precious children should not be subjected to hitting, slapping, spanking, punching, kicking, shaking, shoving, choking, use of objects including wooden paddles, belts, sticks, electric shocks, excessive exercise drills, or prevention of stool or urine elimination.”
Injuries, of course, can also be physical. These include abrasions, bruises, broken bones, hematomas, hemorrhages, muscle injuries, pain and whiplash — conditions that sometimes require hospitalization.
And it is not only the victimized students who are harmed.
Maggie Moschell grew up in southwestern Ohio and graduated high school in 1974. More than 40 years later she still vividly recalls hearing “the crack of the board” as it hit her classmates. “We’d cringe in sympathy,” she says. “I remember a boy who came back into the room grinning bravely as if it didn’t matter, but there were tears in his eyes. I thought it was a terrible thing to do, but growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, we somehow didn’t question it.”
Ending Corporal Punishment
Despite wide-scale support for physical punishment, many parents, student advocates and anti-violence activists have continued to push for the abolition of corporal punishment, especially when it is used to discipline disabled children. They have pointed out that children on the autism spectrum and those who are non-verbal often use behavior to communicate. In addition, instances in which students are punished for behaviors that are linked to their disabilities — a child with Tourette’s Syndrome shouting random words, for example — have been widely condemned.
Current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has, to date, said nothing about corporal punishment, but her predecessor, John B. King Jr., took a different tack and urged all states to abandon it. “The very acts that are permissible when applied to children in schools under some state laws would be prohibited as criminal assault or battery when applied to adults in the community in these very same states,” King wrote in a November 2016 letter to governors and school officers. “School-sponsored corporal punishment is not only ineffective, it is a harmful practice and one that disproportionately impacts students of color and students with disabilities. This practice has no place in the public schools of a modern nation …”
Not surprisingly, the ACLU agrees. Lawsuits have been filed in states where students have suffered egregious harm at the hands of their teachers or school security. Several, says attorney Susan Mizner of the ACLU Disability Rights Program, involve the handcuffing of elementary school children. Until recently, she reports, district schools in Covington, Kentucky, used School Resource Officers — employees of the Sheriff’s office — to maintain order. In one case, an 8-year-old boy who was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was having a rough day and the Resource Officer was called. “The Officer had adult-sized handcuffs with him so he put these around the boy’s biceps after the child tried to pull away from him,” Mizner says. “He was so traumatized by this he had to leave the school district.”
More than 50 countries around the world have banned corporal punishment.
In the second case, a 9-year-old girl was wandering the halls instead of waiting in the cafeteria as instructed. Mizner reports that she was put “in a seclusion room and would not calm down so they called an ambulance to take her to the hospital. When the EMTs arrived, they found her on the ground, in handcuffs, in a pain position.” She also now attends a school in a different district.
Although litigation in both cases is ongoing, Mizner is pleased that law enforcement personnel have been removed from Covington’s schools — a small, but not insignificant, victory.
“These cases are very representative,” Mizner says. “We know that restraint and referrals to law enforcement happen regularly to kids with and without disabilities. This tends to impact the youngest kids the most because they are often unable to articulate what happened and are less likely to fight back.”
Improving Teacher Education
In addition to policy changes, what steps can be taken to banish corporal punishment from the classroom? Mizner says that teachers, especially those assigned to Special Education classrooms, need better training and support. “It’s easy to demonize educators,” she says, “and while some deserve this, many teachers have not been shown ways to react to a kid who is melting down.” Learning the techniques to use when a student’s behavior is escalating — such as diverting his or her attention and disrupting whatever is causing the distress — is essential. “There are many empathetic ways to help people disconnect from their emotions and get back on track,” she says.
Taking police out of schools would also help curb physical punishment. However, more and more school districts are bringing police officers into the public schools, ACLU staff attorney Sarah Hinger, reports. “We know that in 2013, 24 percent of elementary schools and 42 percent of high schools had police stationed inside. We also know that 51 percent of schools that were majority African American or Latinx that year, had police on campus.” Anecdotally, communities of color know that this has not only exacerbated the school-to-prison pipeline but has resulted in numerous Black and Brown students being tasered, pepper sprayed, put in choke holds, and battered with police batons. Unfortunately, Hinger says, an exact number of incidents is hard to come by since record keeping is inconsistent, in some places maintained by the school district and in others maintained by the police department.
For now, educating students and their families about their rights and discussing the negative impact of corporal punishment top the education agenda. “We need a huge cultural shift to help teachers, kids, and their families understand that corporal punishment does more harm than good and is counterproductive,” the ACLU’s Mizner says.
What’s more, since more than 50 countries around the world have banned corporal punishment, advocates say that the US would be wise to follow their example.