This past year has tested more than our mettle as educators; it’s tested our investment in the causes we claim as ours. I mean, it’s one thing to have “liked” a post about anti-racism or trauma-sensitive classrooms in 2019. It’s another thing entirely to have overhauled your content and instruction in 2020. And furthermore, how many of us will work towards changing policy—in our buildings, districts and states—in 2021?
We might be bone-tired, and we might lack the courage and humility, sometimes, to fully engage with the issues, but that doesn’t change the fact that the time for action is now.
What follows is the first of a three-part series on paddling in schools, a disciplinary practice that is still legal in 19 states despite the American Academy of Pediatrics’ firm opposition.
As professionals, we pride ourselves on implementing progressive practices backed by research. So, why are we not discussing the educational malpractice that is the state-sanctioned paddling of children?
Answered simply: Because it is difficult—and made fraught by our own selfish indifference and defense mechanisms. Corporal punishment lies at the intersection of trauma transmission, institutional racism and religious dogma. However, this “conversation roadmap” might help us navigate around the discussion’s typical impasses.
Start the Conversation
Imagine we are two colleagues, chatting—six feet apart—by the copy machine or, virtually, waiting for a Zoom meeting to begin. I shake my head and say,
“We tell children not to hit one another—that hitting is ‘bad’—and yet, over 109,000 children are paddled in schools across the United States every year.”
“Really?” you ask in disbelief. And an awkward silence ensues.
I wonder, ‘Are you shocked by the number? Does it trigger you? Or worst of all, are you indifferent?’
I’m assertive: “Yes, really.”
You shift your gaze uncomfortably, but I don’t relent—because this topic is too important to avoid. Plus, it’s 2020, and I can handle sustained, uncomfortable conversations.
“Can we talk about corporal punishment in schools, please?” I ask.
Equip Yourself With Data
Currently, school personnel in 19 states can legally bend students over and hit them with a wooden paddle. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report “The Striking Outlier,” just four of these states—Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Texas—account for more than 70% of all incidents of corporal punishment in the United States.
And even more troubling: That same report discovered disparities in the students who were subjected to this antiquated practice. For example, students with identified disabilities were paddled at higher rates than those without. Black boys were paddled nearly twice as much as white boys, and Black girls, three times as much as white girls.
Of course, with a dearth of Black teachers and administrators in our public schools, it’s not hard to imagine the skin color of the employees who are administering these punishments.
And remember: There is no proper training for paddling students.
So, I give you a moment or two to ruminate on these facts. Then I continue:
“I need us to move beyond statistics,” I say. “I need us to imagine—as uncomfortable as it makes us—that we are those children. Perhaps, we were late for school too many days in a row. Perhaps, we were texting in class. The infraction truly doesn’t matter, here—does it? The consequence isn’t related to my choices; it’s related to my circumstance. I feel fear; I feel humiliation; I feel pain. I am teary-eyed and wincing; I am crying. And with every strike, the pretense of our healthy relationship—one of mutual respect, of trust and responsibility—is worn thinner until it’s a ghost of something else. My body is no longer my body; I’ve lost the right to it. At school. And in America. Now, how do you feel?”
As reported by Rebecca Klein of Huffpost, the study “Historic Lynching and Corporal Punishment in Contemporary Southern Schools” finds a horrifying through line: “schools in counties with more pronounced histories of violent racialized social control, where physical pain has long been used to discipline and punish marginalized populations, are more likely to employ corporal punishment, and disproportionately impose this punishment on Black students today.”
A ghost of something else, indeed.
“Wait—” you interject. “This is starting to sound a little too … white. I mean, it sounds like you’re unfairly imposing your elitist, ‘progressive,’ white normativity on another’s culture. Maybe paddling students isn’t as bad as you think.”
“That’s a fair point, and I always appreciate someone calling me on my whiteness. But have you ever heard of Dr. Stacey Patton? I recently attended The National Initiative to End Corporal Punishment’s conference where she be presented. She was amazing! Anyway, she wrote the book Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America. You should check it out. It’ll stretch your thinking a little bit.”
In her book, Patton postulates that the passivity with which society accepts the physical punishment of Black children (as inextricable from culture) is both a product and perpetuation of white supremacy. Patton writes,
“Let’s at least acknowledge what we’re really doing, where this errant programming really comes from, and what the real long-term consequences are.”
It’s a fact that physical punishments have a detrimental effect on young people. Paddling can lead to increased aggression, impulsivity and defiance. As the Southern Poverty Law Center concludes, corporal punishment “increases the possibility that a student will become entangled in the justice system. In this respect, school-based corporal punishment contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline—the harsh cycle of punitive policies, practices and procedures that pushes children out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems, often for minor infractions…”
Hey! I have your attention again! That’s because terms like “white supremacy” and the “school-to-prison pipeline” are part of the national conversation—as well as “trauma-informed instruction,” “social and emotional learning” and “restorative practices.”
We’ve grown adept at discussing those topics.
But here’s the truth: We can’t wholeheartedly practice anti-racism or establish trauma-sensitive classrooms without addressing corporal punishment in our schools, too.
Maneuvering Around the Oldest Roadblocks
And still I wonder, ‘Are you shocked by all I’ve said? Are you triggered by it? Or worst of all, are you indifferent about it?’
Then some old belief begins to suffocate under the weight of reason, and you give words to its last gasp:
“Well, I was paddled when I was a kid, and I ended up O.K.” You shrug your shoulders and look at your phone.
I say: “Yes, you did end up O.K. But not every kid is like you. And there’s a growing body of research that proves you are O.K. despite your enduring physical punishment—not because of it.”
I press on: “I don’t know your story. I don’t know your connection to this issue. But I need you to know that it doesn’t matter whether you’re supportive of or indifferent about hitting children—because both positions result in inaction.” I take a breath. “It’s alright, though. I just want you to think about it. Corporal punishment is a complicated issue, and it’s only made more complicated by the internalization of our own adverse childhood experiences. This internalization functions in ways we don’t often detect as trauma-related, and it can manifest itself insidiously over generations—especially when those manifestations become institutionalized.”
And maybe a day later—or maybe a few more conversations later—you finally inquire:
“So, what should we do about it?”
“Well,” I say, “I’m glad you asked …”
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