• Christine Dickason

Lessons of Violence

Too often, we see headlines about violence in our schools, often caused by gun violence or bullying. However, a more insidious form of violence has remained in our classrooms for decades—one that is often condoned by school administrators, teachers, parents, and even the Supreme Court.

It's called corporal punishment.

Photo by Luke Marshall on Unsplash

So, what is corporal punishment? There is no definition of "corporal punishment" under federal law, but Merriam Webster defines it as "punishment that involves hitting someone." Some states offer vague concepts of the practice; for example, Title 49, Chapter 6, Part 41 of the Tennessee State Code, says corporal punishment is allowed “in a reasonable manner against any pupil for good cause in order to maintain discipline and order within the public schools." But it fails to specifically define what that punishment looks like in action.

The practice was found to be too harsh for use on criminal offenders. But for school children? In 1977, in Ingraham v. Wright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a 14-year-old student who had be subjected to corporal punishment, finding that "the Eighth Amendment does not prevent corporal punishment in public schools." While some states have since banned the practice, 19 states still allow schools to use corporal punishment as a form of discipline, and the precedent set in Ingraham v. Wright remains the law of the land.

When schools do allow corporal punishment, it is often applied for a wide variety of offenses, including, but not limited to, "eating or drinking in class, sleeping in class, walking on the wrong side of the hallway, running in the hallway, talking back to a teacher, not turning in homework, not having a belt in violation of the dress code, and going to the bathroom without permission." Without clearly defined limits and reasons for applications, inequities begin to appear. The American Civil Liberties Union found that “African-American students make up 17.1 percent of the nationwide student population, but 35.6 percent of those paddled.”

The inequity in discipline extends beyond race or ethnicity. Students with disabilities are more likely to be subjected to physical punishment across the country. Students with disabilities comprise only 14 percent of the student population in the U.S.; yet, “they make up 19 percent of those who receive corporal punishment.” Interviews conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union found that students with disabilities were subjected to more than just paddling, including, but not limited to, “hitting children with rulers; pinching or striking very young children; grabbing children with enough force to bruise; throwing children to the floor; and bruising or otherwise injuring children in the course of restraint.”

Even if all inequities in the practice were eliminated, there is still no reason to keep corporal punishment, due to both its ineffectiveness and negative impact on students. The American Academy of Pediatrics stated that corporal punishment “may affect adversely a student’s self-image and school achievement and that it may contribute to disruptive and violent student behavior." Other negative consequences include absenteeism, higher risk for mood and anxiety disorders, and "a greater chance of physically or verbally coercing a sexual partner, engaging in risky sexual behavior or engaging in masochistic sex." Instead of solving the original discipline issue, corporal punishment actually creates more problems, some of which are long-term.

Although the practice has been on the decline for decades, over 100,000 children experience corporal punishment in school every year in the U.S. And while the Obama Administration had taken steps to limit the use of this violent tactic, especially through the use of restorative justice as a positive alternative, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos seems headed in the opposite direction.

Educators have been granted the incredible responsibility of teaching our county’s next generation of scientists, writers, thinkers, artists, and politicians. But it is up to policy makers to ensure that our country's future leaders can attend school in a safe and nurturing learning environment, free from the lessons of violence taught by corporal punishment.

Want to take action? Check out the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children. Or, if your local school district still allows corporal punishment, call the school board and elected representatives, and urge them to ban the practice.

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