Here’s a familiar scene:
You are attending a professional workshop about America’s school-to-prison pipeline. The gray-suited speaker concludes his presentation to thunderous applause, and yet, you remain shook. The faces of students you had forgotten—students whose lives were well-documented by your local newspaper’s police blotter—reappear before you, suddenly. Did they drop out, or were they expelled? Is there even a difference, at this point?
Your mind reels. Expulsion rates; incarceration rates. Your “no-excuse” policy about late homework. “Rigor.” The bell curve that absolved you at the end of every semester because “not every kid is going to make it.” The lack of diversity in your curriculum, and the lack of student voice in your lesson plans. That one time you didn’t call out your white colleagues for their casual racism. Or maybe it was two times. Or more?
It’s not so much the realization of your complicity that has you paralyzed; it’s the feeling of powerlessness. The machinery of white supremacy—in all its unrelenting ubiquity—seems simultaneously too institutional and too regenerative to dismantle.
And then, in a moment of cosmic irony, you remember the name of the workshop: “Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline.” But how are you supposed to accomplish that? You watch as the presenter struts off the stage … like a hero.
Maybe simply having listened to the problem is enough to satisfy your colleagues; maybe having simply explained it is enough to satisfy the presenter.
But it’s not enough for you. Not anymore.
Say It With Me: “Dislodge a Cog”
- What makes some conversations about dismantling systemic racism ineffective or counterproductive?
- Which policies in your schools bear the legacy of America’s historic injustices?
- What organizations and education leaders in your professional orbit work towards similar goals?
- What forces (internal or external) are preventing you from coalition-building?
- Where are your potential supporters and how will you activate their passion?
Truthfully, what I will ask teachers to do is identify one cog in the machinery of white supremacy that is within their network’s reach. I will ask teachers to call attention to that cog and create a coalition of equally passionate advocates—each with their own, unique tools—that can help to dislodge it.
That’s right: I will ask teachers to narrow their focus, take inventory of their resources, and reimagine their mission. The problem might deserve a grand speech by someone in an expensive suit, but the solution requires the tireless work of people like you and me at the local level.
You Heard Me Right: “Ban School Paddling”
In Arkansas, where I live, 67% of all school districts have adopted a state-approved policy that allows administrators to paddle students. Paddling students is an act of violence that can induce toxic stress, similar to that of ACEs, resulting in impulsivity, defiance, and cognitive problems. In states like Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas, Black students are paddled at rates disproportional to white students—for the exact same offenses. In other words, corporal punishment (or paddling) is a cog in the machinery of white supremacy; it’s a part of that school-to-prison pipeline you’ve heard so much about.
I know this statistic—67%—because, with the help of the University of Arkansas’s Office of Education Policy, I spent several months poring through every district’s policy in the entire state. Every. District. So, let me tell you what I saw. (All quotations are plucked verbatim from actual handbooks.)
- The infractions that deserve paddling vary from district to district. “Rough play,” for example, could result in paddling at one elementary school, while “hand-holding” or even “sexual harassment” result in paddling at another. The wide range of offenses deserving corrective violence proves, in truth, its arbitrary administering, and the uncomfortable similarity between some of the students’ behaviors and their consequences are beyond hypocritical—they are the epitome of cognitive dissonance. Can you imagine the mental gymnastics a principal must perform to justify hitting a student because that student hit another student?
- At some schools, a minor infraction like “leaving a book behind” (whatever the hell that means) can result in detention; however, students have the right to choose a paddling instead of detention. For a millisecond, that option might sound gracious and accommodating, but it is dangerously insidious. For families, rescheduling an afternoon can be a nightmare for many reasons: babysitting, carpooling, sports practice, etc. Students are given a false choice. They’re forced to “choose” to receive corporal punishment, and the illusion of this choice only normalizes such violence as an acceptable—and on a busy afternoon, preferable—consequence. Can you imagine the psychology of a child who’s been gaslighted into believing they’ve chosen to be hit by an adult?
- Most school districts that allow paddling offer families an annual “opt-out” form in their handbooks; however, the verbiage of these “opt-out” forms is highly problematic. Almost always, a “refusal to accept the punishment” results in a multiple-day out-of-school suspension (OSS) “without the opportunity to make up any missed assignments.” Parents are also warned in these “opt-out” forms that, if they refuse to comply with the policy, they must bring their child home from school early on the day of the infraction. In other words, signing this “opt-out” form poses the risk for the child of missing assignments and for the parents of missing work. By forcing parents to “opt-out,” school districts have made it the parents’ responsibility to protect their children from violence instead of the administrators’. By penalizing families who “opt-out,” school districts are manipulating parents with—here it is, again—a false choice. Can you imagine the emotional toll this false choice has on parents who are trying their best to protect their children despite their school districts’ policies?
- Some schools’ handbooks state precisely the number of “licks”/ ”swats”/ ”strikes” that students will receive per infraction; others refer vaguely to age, sex, size and “ability to bear the punishment.” This admission—this gross perversion of an individualized intervention based on some invisible pain threshold—proves the real danger in hitting students. The physical pain students are forced to endure is temporary, but the emotional distress experienced—the fear, the shame—can last long into adulthood. This type of trauma has been proven to increase the risk of alcoholism and drug use. It can lead to depression and suicidal ideations. Can you imagine the gall—or the ignorance—required for administrators to believe they can assess a student’s trauma instantaneously?
If we know Black students are more likely than white students to receive consequences in public schools, if we know consequences like paddling produce toxic stress like that of ACEs, and if we know ACEs can impede students’ success in traditional learning environments, then why aren’t we doing anything about it?
That’s why I’ve started Arkansans Against School Paddling, an official state chapter of the U. S. Alliance to End the Hitting of Children. As an organization, we’ll work to convince school board members to revisit their local policies and to convince legislators to ban the practice statewide. We’ll promote antiracist and trauma-informed instructional practices, and we’ll give voice to the mistreated children of Arkansas, who for too long have been victims of school-sanctioned violence at the hands of trusted adults.
Don’t Forget: “Changed Laws Change Beliefs”
You might ask, “But aren’t schools beholden to their communities? What if parents want their children to be hit by teachers and administrators?”
Underneath these questions lies a sad truth: There are many parents whose socialization has led them to believe their children need to be hit. And as I shared in the first part of this series on corporal punishment, conversations about hitting children are often too fraught with defensiveness to effect change. For that reason, we look to places around the world where, unlike certain states in America, beliefs about hitting children have changed dramatically.
And here’s what we find: Prohibiting adults from hitting children will—over time—change collective attitudes about hitting children. Before Sweden’s 1979 ban of corporal punishment, for example, 53% of adults approved of physical punishment; in 1981, 26%; in 1995, 11%; in 2011, 8%. The percentage of children who reported physical punishment at home also fell from 100% in 1974 to 14% in 2000. We see similar precipitous declines in other countries, too, like Germany and New Zealand (as reported by The National Initiative to End Corporal Punishment).
This understanding—that changing laws can change beliefs—is a founding principle of Ibram X. Kendi’s Antiracist Research & Policy Center. When we reshape laws so that they recognize the historic injustices perpetrated against a people, we remove the legal permission to deny their humanity.
At Arkansans Against School Paddling, we want to encourage you to focus on dislodging a cog—instead of entirely dismantling—the machinery of white supremacy. Forget that gray-suited guy on the stage; instead, look around your city and state. We want you to know that there are passionate advocates just like you, who feel as overwhelmed as they feel energized. Find them. Because you know what? They’re looking for you, too.
And remember this: the machinery of white supremacy is built to withstand those grand speeches. It’s time, now, to get to work.
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