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.”