This morning the Obama administration has called for an end to the use of corporal punishment, with Education Secretary John King urging states and school districts that still allow it to “eliminate this practice from your schools, and instead promote supportive, effective disciplinary measures.”
Thousands of students today experience corporal punishment—a disciplinary practice using the deliberate infliction of pain or use of physical force—in the 19 states that still allow it. In the 2013-14 school year, more than 100,000 students received some kind of corporal punishment, including more than 16,000 students with disabilities.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch have documented cases of corporal punishment in school including hitting students with a belt, a ruler, punching, slapping or striking, grabbing children with enough force to bruise, throwing children to the floor, slamming a child into a wall, dragging children across floors or injuring children during the course of restraint.
A Racist Practice
In his letter to governors and state school leaders, King called corporal punishment “harmful, ineffective, and often disproportionately applied to students of color and students with disabilities.”
Even though we know that Black students are not more likely to behave worse than their peers, Black students continue to disproportionately receive corporal punishment. Black boys are nearly 16 percent of public school enrollment but 35 percent of the boys who received corporal punishment. Black girls are almost four times more likely to receive corporal punishment than white girls.
Although public schools are increasingly filled with students of color, the teaching force remains 80 percent white increasing the chances for racial bias to come into the classroom, influencing the type of disciplinary action that takes place.
The Real Reason Parents Condone
Many schools that allow corporal punishment receive permission from parents at the start of the school year, giving teachers and administrators discretion in administering physical punishment. While many have found corporal punishment to be unacceptable in schools, 70 percent of Americans were pro-spanking in their homes as recently as 2012.
From this study over 80 percent of Black parents favored spanking their children. Throughout America’s history Black parents have seen their sons and daughters assaulted and murdered by the police time and time again. So, it’s no surprise that Black parents would rather discipline their children at home than see them murdered in the streets.
Michael Eric Dyson wrote about Black parents and “beating” as a form of discipline:
Today, many black parents fear that a loose tongue or flash of temper could get their child killed by a trigger-happy cop. They would rather beat their offspring than bury them.
I understand the desire for Black parents to protect their children who are at risk for simply being Black, however, this should not be a choice or right extended to schools who far too often fail to appropriately and fairly discipline Black students.
Here’s the Thing: It Doesn’t Work
While many have accepted spanking in their homes because they or someone they knew were disciplined that way, studies do not show positive effects of spanking. What studies do show is that children who are spanked become more aggressive over time while children who are not spanked become less aggressive over time. Physical punishment has been linked to depression, anxiety and drug and alcohol abuse.
Corporal punishment has long-lasting effects that children never forget. My father attended schools that used corporal punishment regularly. Over 50 years later, corporal punishment has not left the memory of my dad and his friends. They still remember the welts the students had on their arms while they learned multiplication.
When dealing with a student who may be exhibiting behavior problems, teachers should be provided with support from school administration and parents.
To reduce challenges that may occur in crowded classrooms, teachers should be provided with teacher assistants and trauma-informed professional development programs on positive discipline to better correct behavior in a way that doesn’t physically harm, inflict trauma or disconnect children from school.
Accentuate the Positive
We should be incorporating solutions with proven results. Some schools have seen success with restorative justice programs that allow children to identify their mistakes, make amends, build community and make better choices in the future.
Teachers and parents who actively work together to correct poor behavior and celebrate student success have the best results. Something as simple as having a good day or doing well on an assignment should be celebrated at school and at home. Children need to know that their teachers and parents work together consistently and love them and support their success.
Children should leave school whole, full of life and with a love and passion for learning. The way that we have allowed children to be disciplined breaks the very spirit of the children whose futures are at stake. We can set children on the right path simply by caring for them and providing them with strategies to better behave.