“But I wasn’t chewing any gum,” the 10-year-old begged, insisting he was innocent.
“You’re a liar!” the adult reportedly responded. “Now you’re really going to get it because you keep lying to me.”
In a scene more reminiscent of a Victorian orphanage or an 1800s one-room schoolhouse, the wooden paddle allegedly hit the child’s backside about a dozen times, each smack accompanied by wailing cries. The door to the hallway was only partially closed, allowing Liz Dwyer, a student at the time who says she witnessed the incident at Muessel Elementary School in South Bend, Indiana, to clearly hear the screams of the third-grader in the music room. Dwyer says she’s still haunted by the memory of corporal punishment over 30 years later. “I knew he didn’t have any gum,” she said, “but I was too afraid to speak up.”
Dwyer, the culture and education editor at the digital advocacy magazine TakePart, distinctly recalls “the swoosh of the paddle, the sound it made as it connected with [his] body… the sobs for mercy.” And she remembers the arbitrary and discriminatory nature of the punishment. “The reasons a kid could be yanked out of class… were inconsistent and petty,” she said. “If our [music] teacher thought a boy—and it seemed to always be a boy—was singing [a song] too loudly… if he seemed bored while he clanged the shiny metal triangle, or if he appeared a tad too enthusiastic while slapping a tambourine, the paddle would come out.”
These days, in the realm of harsh school discipline, suspensions, expulsions, and school arrests most immediately come to mind. Many believe paddling is an archaic punishment from a long-gone era. Federal education data confirms that incidents of corporal punishment reported by schools have declined significantly in recent years. But the practice is still widely in use—and for tens of thousands of public-school students, discipline that “deliberately inflicts pain upon a child” is not uncommon. As a result, education groups, activists, and parents—including those victimized by the practice—are demanding that corporal punishment be outlawed in schools to protect children’s physical and emotional health.
In the 19 states—mainly in the South, Southwest, and Midwest—where corporal punishment is legal, teachers and school officials have wide discretion in how and when to apply such discipline. That’s because of a 1977 Supreme Court case, Ingraham v. Wright, which found that spanking in schools does not violate students’ rights, specifically the Eighth Amendment’s “cruel and unusual punishment” clause and the Fourteenth Amendment’s right to due process. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, Berryhill Public Schools Superintendent Mike Campbell told the Tulsa World he finds paddling useful “for some children” and points to himself as an example. “I know I was paddled as a child, and I grew up to be a productive citizen,” Campbell said. Still, while there’s no formal policy banning corporal punishment in his district, Campbell and school leaders decided to phase it out a few years ago to reduce the likelihood of lawsuits and costly litigation—the potential risks outweighed possible benefits.
Nationally, 31 states and the District of Columbia have banned the practice, along with many large urban school districts like Houston, Memphis, and Atlanta in states where paddling is still allowed. Even so, reports of physical discipline in schools persist in states where it’s legally banned, such as Maryland.
Efforts to abolish the practice in recent years have been met with mixed success. Ohio and New Mexico banned corporal punishment in 2009 and 2011, respectively, but attempts in Louisiana and Texas both failed in the same years. In Texas, which ranks second in spanking students, lawmakers instead gave parents the right to exempt their children from corporal punishment with a signed waiver.
Despite legislative activity, however, the number of students subject to such punishment remains high. In the latest civil-rights report from the U.S. Department of Education, which generally discourages punitive discipline, nearly 167,000 students received physical punishment in the 2011-12 school year, with the vast majority of paddling in a handful of states. Mississippi and Texas accounted for 35 percent of the reported cases of corporal punishment. With the addition of Alabama, Arkansas, and Georgia, the data suggests that over 70 percent of all children disciplined with physical force reside in just five states. (The data excludes reports on restraint and seclusion, which are often practiced among students with disabilities.)
Of increasing concern—and consistent with other discipline trends—is who gets paddled. Anecdotal and empirical evidence shows that a disproportionate number of the students receiving corporal punishment are black. According to federal statistics, black students are 16 percent of students enrolled in public schools but are 35 percent of those physically disciplined; black children receive physical punishment at almost three times the rate of their non-black peers. The decidedly racial tilt is also seen at the state level. In Mississippi, which tops the list in cases of corporal punishment, black students are 49 percent of the state’s student population and 64 percent of those paddled, far surpassing the number of white classmates (35 percent) receiving such discipline.
These striking racial disparities and a growing body of research asserting the detrimental effects of corporal punishment are prompting many to advocate against its use. Groups including the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Medical Association strongly oppose the practice. A 2009 joint report by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, A Violent Education, labels corporal punishment a violation of students’ “physical integrity and human dignity” and brands the practice “degrading, humiliating, and damaging.”
This position is shared by Donald E. Greydanus, a pediatrician who has studied and written on corporal punishment for decades. At an April 2010 congressional hearing on such punishment’s effect on academic success, Greydanus testified that physical discipline makes the school environment “unproductive, nullifying, and punitive,” and teaches children that “violence is acceptable, especially against the weak, the defenseless, and the subordinate.”
Greydanus added that studies show the effects of physical punishment in schools are wide-ranging and long-lasting. This is evidenced by victims’ accounts, like that of Kaleb “KJ” Hill, 29, of New Orleans. As a sixth-grader in Birmingham, Alabama, Hill was allegedly paddled and realized the harshness of the punishment as an adult. “It was almost as if we [black boys] were targeted by this particular teacher,” Hill said, noting that he was diagnosed with dyslexia as an adult and behaviors teachers and principals treated as misbehavior were actually signs of a learning disability. For Hill, it’s the emotional, not the physical, pain that endures. “I still remember what the paddle looked like—wooden with holes drilled in it—I remember his face…what his office looked like. I suffer from PTSD because of Katrina but I remember his face.”
Now an education activist, Hill lobbied for Louisiana House Bill 646 in 2013 because of how corporal punishment affected him. The bill, voted down by lawmakers, pushed discipline practices that advance positive school climates. Hill’s parenting also reflects his views on paddling: “I have a son. He’s 13. I’ve never spanked him … I’ve never put my hands on him for that reason.”
Rafranz Davis, an educator from Texas, agrees. As someone who experienced the harsh discipline as a student in Texas, and as a parent with a child in Texas public schools, Davis, the executive director of professional and digital learning for Lufkin Independent School District, disdains corporal punishment. In fifth grade Davis said she received “swats”—like paddling and spanking, a euphemism for physical punishment. “We were given swats for horse playing. For years, I was still angry… I still saw that teacher [and] it still bothered me.”
Davis’s ire was amplified when her son Khalil met the same fate in kindergarten for running down the hallway during class, adding that her son was diagnosed with ADHD a few years later. Like Hill, the use of spanking in schools for an undiagnosed learning difficulty gave Davis insight and pause. And while corporal punishment remains commonplace in many Texas schools and homes—it’s “the ‘Southern’ thing to do,” said Davis—she’s committed to ending the ingrained culture of paddling.
“I hated it and didn’t [do the same] with my own children. I believe it’s a practice meant to keep people of less power in check.”