Corporal punishment in America’s public schools seems like a relic of the past — a practice we had surely banned long ago. The reality, however, is that it’s perfectly legal to physically discipline students as young as preschoolers in 19 states. And according to a new report, corporal punishment is most often used against black students and students with disabilities.
Released earlier this week as a “Social Policy Report” from the Society for Research in Child Development, the report found that in Alabama and Mississippi, black children are at least 51 percent more likely to be physically punished than white children in more than half of school districts, while children with disabilities are more then 50 percent more likely to be physically punished than non-disabled students in many southeastern states where the practice is legal. The findings are based on numbers from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which collects corporal punishment data from the nearly 37,000 public schools in states where the practice is allowed. (It’s good to note right away that just because school-based physical punishment is legal in 19 states, does not mean every school in those states uses this form of discipline. In many cases, school officials prohibit the practice.)
“It is discouraging that some schools think it’s necessary to still do this in the 21st century when there are so many other options for discipline,” report co-author Elizabeth Gershoff, an associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas-Austin, told me. “Teaching children with fear and physical control is not the way to teach children to behave.”
Gershoff has spent nearly 15 years studying parents’ use of physical punishment on children, and said she became curious about similar punishments being used in schools. And even though schools are required to report such data to federal education officials, there was still a big gap in terms of analyzing that data to gain a clearer view of patterns and trends. In turn, Gershoff and her report co-author, Sarah Font of Pennsylvania State University, decided to fill that gap. The resulting report is now the first-ever effort on the prevalence of corporal punishment at school and school-district levels, as well as on disparities in the use of such punishments.
Thankfully, according to the report, the prevalence of corporal punishment in public schools is decreasing, from 4 percent of all schoolchildren in 1978 to less than 0.5 percent today, largely driven by corporal punishment bans enacted in 25 states. Overall, schools that use corporal punishment are largely clustered in the southeastern U.S., with a “geographic concentration” in three states — Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi — where more than half of the school districts use it. Among the 19 states where corporal punishment is allowed, 12 percent of students attend a school that uses it. During the 2011-2012 school year, most school districts where the practice is legal decided against using it.
The two researchers found that during the 2011-2012 school year, more than 163,000 schoolchildren experienced corporal punishment. However, the report noted that number only reflects how many individual students were physically punished, not how many times they may have been physically punished, meaning instances of corporal punishment may be underestimated. Mississippi took the top spot, physically punishing the highest proportion of students, at 7 percent of all students, as well as the largest number, at more than 32,000 students. Alabama and Arkansas followed in terms of prevalence rates, and Texas came in second in terms of numbers of children physically punished.
On exactly who is being punished, the report found that racial disparities in the use of corporal punishment are common, with Alabama and Mississippi home to the largest disparities. In particular, black children in those two states are at least 51 percent more likely to receive corporal punishment in over half the school districts. Black children were also three times more likely than white children to be corporally punished in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Tennessee. In finding such disparities, Gershoff and Font wondered if black children were simply more likely to attend a school that uses corporal punishment. But they found the opposite — it’s white children who are more likely to attend such a school. They write:
Racial disparities in school corporal punishment are similar to those found for suspensions and expulsions, such that black children receive all forms of school discipline at a higher rate than their white peers. Research has largely concluded that disparities in suspensions and expulsions are not explained by differences in misbehavior; rather, black children are disciplined more severely than their non-black peers for the same misbehaviors. Few studies have investigated the source of racial disparities in school corporal punishment. An analysis of one Florida school district found that black children were more likely than other children to receive corporal punishment despite committing a smaller proportion of severe offenses.
The report also found that boys are substantially more likely to experience corporal punishment than girls in more than three-quarters of school districts in Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas. In some schools, the corporal punishment rate for boys was five times the rate for girls. Also, children with physical, cognitive or emotional disabilities were more than 50 percent more likely to be physically punished in 67 percent of public schools districts in Alabama, 44 percent of districts in Arkansas, 34 percent in Georgia, 35 percent in Louisiana, 46 percent in Mississippi and 36 percent in Tennessee. The researchers noted that because federal law allows for children with disabilities to receive extra support and assistance at school, the corporal punishment disparity may suggest that “school staff are often responding to their challenging behaviors with harsh, rather than positive, disciplinary methods.”
“Schools may believe it’s effective and think if they don’t do this, it’ll be pandemonium or that they need corporal punishment as a last resort,” Gershoff told me. “But on many occasions, it’s not being used as a last resort. It’s being used for talking in the hall or going to the bathroom without permission or not turning in homework.”
On the effectiveness question, Gershoff said previous research has found that states that banned corporal punishment didn’t experience an increase in juvenile crime. Other research has found that corporal punishment is associated with lower academic achievement and worse behavior among children — findings that are consistent with what Gershoff has documented in studying the effects of spanking by parents.
She also noted that several states exempt public school personnel from child abuse statutes, so if a child is injured while being corporally punished, prosecution isn’t an option. To put that in even clearer perspective, Gershoff said that what could constitute child abuse at home — say, injuring a child while punishing them with a wooden board — would get a legal pass at school. Gershoff’s report cited a Society of Adolescent Medicine estimate that more than 270,000 children were corporally punished in 2003, with 10,000-20,000 seeking medical care as a result.
Gershoff said the best way to protect all children is a federal ban on corporal punishment in school.
“We hope a report like this can help educate the public that children are being harmed and the federal government does have a role in preventing this,” she said. “At the very least, I hope this can educate parents, so they can find out if their school (uses corporal punishment) and opt out.”
Gershoff said she plans to continue this line of research, investigating why some school districts use corporal punishment more than others and documenting the outcomes for children who experience corporal punishment. To download a full copy of the report, visit the Society for Research in Child Development.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for nearly 15 years.