A Review of Corporal Punishment in the United States
Jessica R. Morgan
University of New Haven
Corporal punishment can be defined as “paddling, spanking, or other forms of physical punishment imposed on a student” (U.S. Department of Education, 2014 p. 21). The United States is still one of the few members of the United Nations to allow corporal punishment in schools (Gershoff & Font, 2016). Although this practice has been on the decline since the 1970’s (Gershoff et al., 2015), with 25 states banning it between 1974 and 1994, recent data indicate 19 states currently utilize corporal punishment (Ward et al., 2021). In the 2013-2014 academic year, an estimated 600 students per day were struck in schools (Whitaker & Losen, 2019). Other research suggests over 160,000 children are corporally punished in schools each year (Gershoff & Font, 2016).
In essence, educational environments should be a safe space for children to learn, grow, and develop. Educators are charged with creating a healthy learning setting, yet the practice of corporal punishment continues in schools throughout the U.S. Students who attend schools that continue the practice of corporal punishment are at a meaningful disadvantage, because it causes harm on several levels and can have lifelong physical and psychological effects (Hyman, 1995; Gershoff et al., 2019). While the movement towards abolishing corporal punishment originated in the 1970s, it has only eliminated the practice across some of the country. It prevails particularly in the South, leaving lasting marks on children, which is why research and discussion around school corporal punishment must continue (Gershoff & Font, 2016).
The purpose of this paper is to examine how corporal punishment has an intersectional way of oppressing certain groups within schools in the United States. At the core of the practice, children’s rights to safety and education are violated. Education is a top priority in the United States; therefore, schools should be equipped to deal with the range of developmental behaviors in a way that is not detrimental to their safety and wellbeing. Research has been produced showing benefits of other forms of discipline, including positive disciplinary programs that can shift the use of punishment practices. It will be explained that unfair treatment in the classroom is a substantial issue for education, because when the focus is on punishment, learning is minimized. By continuing the practice, educators are failing to promote academic success and student wellbeing.
This paper will detail how corporal punishment causes harm to students and continues a long history of disparity. Such a practice encourages discrimination and inequality among marginalized groups and individuals. Moreover, it is critical to recognize the ability of the government to put an end to the practice in schools, by abolishing it at the federal level. If education is a priority and equity is desired, then the lens must be shifted to acknowledge how education is at stake with the practice. If corporal punishment was to be addressed as a public policy issue, it should be imminent to federally outlaw the practice. Ending corporal punishment is another way to reduce inequalities produced in school systems. Future research on the physical and psychological effects of corporal punishment on students must continue, in order to encourage the abolition of school corporal punishment in the United States.
The United States is not the only country concerned with child protections. The United Nations, an international organization made up of member states, considers and provides protections for children living around the world. In 1959, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration of Rights of the Child. This declaration includes legal protections in order for a child to grow and develop in a healthy and safe way (Declaration of the Rights of the Child, 1959). The United States was one of the countries to help pass this declaration and has since expounded on the protections of children in American practices.
Historically, however, the Ingraham v. Wright (1977) U.S. Supreme Court decision provided legal groundwork for the encouragement of corporal punishment in schools. The decision was made based on rationale that corporal punishment in schools was acceptable as a school disciplinary tool. This ruling supported the notion that corporal punishment was acceptable for school discipline, but not for those who had committed crimes. The ruling was controversial, because Ingraham v. Wright (1977) did not appear to violate any Constitutional language, which is what the majority used as a basis for their arguments. Unfortunately, this ruling made it acceptable to use corporal punishment in schools across the United States, setting the stage for national acceptance of the practice.
Subsequently, the United States also signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as well as the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Convention against Torture). The United States ratified the ICCPR and Convention against Torture in 1992 and 1994, respectively. Article 7 of the ICCPR expands on how corporal punishment used in schools for education purposes is prohibited (ICCPR, 1966). According to the Convention against Torture, the United Nations prohibits infliction of severe mental and physical pain (Convention against Torture, 1984). Therefore, there are bodies of legislation that hold people accountable for the treatment of children. However, the issue lies in how the accountability is applied.
Previous research supports the movement towards abolishing corporal punishment. Prior to the mid-1990s, there were few quantitative studies on the effects of corporal punishment on children in the U.S. Hyman (1995) thoroughly assessed the debate about corporal punishment and its effectiveness at altering behavior, finding the practice to be associated with physical and psychological damage that can have a lifelong impact. Hyman (1995) specifically revealed an association between excessive use of corporal punishment, conduct disorders, and Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). Furthermore, the research indicated children who experience corporal punishment perform lower in problem-solving abilities, academic achievement, and social competence than their counterparts. Moreover, corporal punishment can make children appear more aggressive, disobedient, and oppositional.
Other early research examined race in relationship to use of corporal punishment. McFadden (1992) found that even though Black students make up a smaller portion of serious student misconduct, they are more likely to receive corporal punishment than their non-Black counterparts. Even while controlling for levels of school misconduct, the racial disparity still existed, and therefore cannot be explained by differences in behavior. Overall, previous research uncovered various negative outcomes and effects corporal punishment has on children in school, but contemporary studies help to support earlier findings, fill existing gaps, and expand on the identified issues.
Historical Lynching and Corporal Punishment
Current research has worked to develop the rhetoric of race and punishment. A recent and critical study investigates how corporal punishment in public schools is related to historical lynching within approximate area. Ward et al. (2021) focused on 10 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. All of these states permit corporal punishment in their schools. Ward et al. (2021) used the 2014 US Department of Education definition of corporal punishment, in accordance with the 2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) data. The authors measured corporal punishment through prevalence, incidence, and a Corporal Punishment Disproportionality index. The independent variable of interest was confirmed historic lynchings, all of which were recorded from 1865-1950. County boundary changes over time were taken into account, and a Geographical Information System (GIS) was used to adjust for current boundaries.
Ultimately, Ward et al. (2021) found that corporal punishment was positively associated with total lynchings in each county for all racial groups (p. 50). There was a significantly positive relationship between historic lynchings and both the incidence and prevalence of corporal punishment. If a region had a greater number of historic lynchings, there was more likely to be a presence of corporal punishment and greater numbers of students corporally punished. This could suggest an overall more punitive form of punishment for students when there are more historical lynchings in a region.
When looking at the race-specific effects, however, there was a lesser effect for white students than for Black students. Ward et al. (2021) found with each additional lynching, there was a 6.4% increase of corporal punishment prevalence and 7.5% increase in the incidence rate of corporal punishment for Black students (p. 50). For white students, with each additional lynching there was 4.2% increase of corporal punishment prevalence and a 4.8% increase in the incidence rate of corporal punishment (p. 50). Overall, Black students were more likely to receive corporal punishment in areas with higher rates of historic lynchings. However, while the effects of historic lynchings were largest for Black students receiving corporal punishment, the areas with greater numbers of historic lynchings did not have disproportionately greater racial disparities in corporal punishment (p. 50).
As of 2020, there was limited research on whether there were various disparities among students who received corporal punishment. In order to examine this issue more deeply, MacSuga-Gage et al. (2020) utilized the 2015-2016 US Department of Education’s office of Civil Rights data. With all public schools included, there would have been 94,781 participating schools. Schools that did not report any corporal punishment were removed, which left 4,139. In order for the schools to be part of the study, they also needed to have recorded at least 10 incidents of corporal punishment. Ultimately, after reviewing the potential schools to include and referencing the states that still legally allow corporal punishment, the sample size became 2,456 schools. This study also used the US Department of Education’s definition of corporal punishment to measure the dependent variable. The focus of this study was on students with disabilities, Black students, Hispanic students, and Black students with disabilities, all of which were compared to their counterparts’ students without disabilities, White students, and White students with disabilities.
Risk ratios (RRs) were used to assess the way subgroups were impacted by corporal punishment in schools. MacSuga-Gage et al. (2020) found significant findings for disproportionality in corporal punishment. Specifically, the authors found that students with disabilities were two times more likely to experience corporal punishment (pg. 6). For students with disabilities, Louisiana and Texas had the highest RRs (p. 6). In addition, Black students were 1.74 times more likely to receive corporal punishment than White students. In contrast, Hispanic students received corporal punishment at a similar rate to White students, when controlling for the covariates (p. 8). When examining the intersection of race and disability, MacSuga-Gage et al. (2020) found that Black students with disabilities are more likely to receive corporal punishment than their white counterparts (p. 8). Overall, this research suggests Black students and student with disabilities are more likely to receive corporal punishment.
Impact of Corporal Punishment on Children
It is important to examine the effects of corporal punishment on student outcomes. Gershoff et al. (2019) assessed this topic through the use of online surveys. With assistance from professors, students in psychology courses at two Texas universities were invited to participate. All of the participants were required to have gone to school in one of the 19 states where corporal punishment was permitted in public schools. In total, there were 876 students surveyed. Of the 876, there were 128 who had experienced corporal punishment. Participants were asked about their experiences with or observing corporal punishment in schools, personal feelings of belonging, depressive symptoms, potential use of spanking their children, perceived effectiveness of corporal punishment, and support of school corporal punishment. The goal was to see whether such recalled school experiences would predict certain differences in mental health or attitudes toward corporal punishment.
In order to reduce the issue of selection bias, the researchers utilized propensity score matching to examine the effect of experiencing corporal punishment. Gershoff et al. (2019) subsequently found that experiencing corporal punishment was significantly related to several variables. The findings indicated lower cumulative GPAs were significantly associated with having experienced corporal punishment (p. 6). Also, lower levels of feelings of belonging to schools were significantly associated with having experienced corporal punishment at school (p. 6). Interestingly, those who had experienced corporal punishment were more likely to think corporal punishment was not acceptable at the elementary and middle school levels; however, they were more likely to see it as acceptable at the high school level (p. 6). Those who experienced school corporal punishment also perceived corporal punishment as being less harmful and more effective (p. 6). However, higher depressive symptoms were found to be significantly related to experiencing school corporal punishment. Gershoff et al. (2019) also found that those who experienced corporal punishment in schools were more likely to support the idea of spanking their potential children. Overall, the researchers concluded that those who have experienced school corporal punishment are more likely to have mental health problems, lower academic outcomes, and to support corporal punishment as a parent.
Discussion and Implications
It is abundantly clear that corporal punishment defies internationally recognized human rights. More specifically, it violates the 1959 Declaration on the Rights of the Child by the United Nations General Assembly (Declaration of the Rights of the Child, 1959). Acknowledging the violations of children’s rights is part of the process or movement towards abolition across the United States. Unfortunately, federal law fails to uphold international legal prohibitions, therefore states are left with the ability to practice school corporal punishment. The most significant and immediate recommendation would be to abolish corporal punishment at the federal level. Ultimately, corporal punishment does violate children’s rights to safety and interferes with education.
In support of changing the current practice, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch previously put together a 125-page report on Corporal Punishment in Schools (Human Rights Watch, 2008). The report analyzed 181 interviews with students and adults, specifically from schools with high rates of corporal punishment in Texas and Mississippi. Consequently, the ACLU and Human Rights Watch recommended Positive Behavior Support (PBS) systems, originally endorsed by the US Department of Education and US Department of Justice in 2000.
PBS is designed to provide three levels of positive behavior supports: universal, secondary, and tertiary (US Department of Education, 2021). The universal support level attempts to prevent problem behavior by implementing rules and routines. Secondary levels of support consist of individual or small group work like mentoring and programming. Tertiary levels of support involve more intensive intervention for specific problems. Evaluations of the program found significant decreases in referrals to principals and increased teachers’ satisfaction (US Department of Education, 2000). Furthermore, researchers found improvement in academic performance and test scores in Illinois schools (Illinois Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports Network, 2007). Ultimately, this approach shifts the mindset from punishment toward the needs of children.
Changes in policy take time, however. Another immediate recommendation would be enhanced data collection. Making school system personnel more accountable for documentation of corporal punishment would be beneficial. Moreover, corporal punishment is not a school’s only tool of discipline. The Human Rights Watch (2008) suggests implementing positive disciplinary programs and strategies outside the realm of corporal punishment. Learning about and using the tools that other states have successfully implemented into school districts also would be beneficial. This would be significant in implementing evidence-based practices that work with children in their developmental growth.
Future research should continue to investigate the long-term physical and psychological impacts of corporal punishment. Long-term impacts would be essential to study because there are still 19 states that practice corporal punishment. It would also be beneficial to evaluate current positive disciplinary programs more thoroughly. Evaluation research will help to allocate money to various areas, such as programming, staffing, and training, where it is needed. Eventually, more evaluation research will be beneficial for both the states that abolish corporal punishment, and those that already have done so.
Currently, students still face disadvantages in the educational systems because they are subject to corporal punishment. The lack of federal regulation provides leeway for states to have their own practices. Research shows that corporal punishment for children in school is abusive and ineffective (Human Rights Watch, 2008). School corporal punishment can have long lasting psychological and physical impacts (Gershoff et al., 2019; Hyman, 1995). Moreover, Black students appear more likely to receive corporal punishment than their White counterparts, as do students with disabilities (MacSuga-Gage et al., 2020). The intersectionality of punishment is significant to the findings as well. Students who go to school in areas where there are more reported historical lynchings are more likely to experience corporal punishment, and Black students are even more likely to receive corporal punishment in areas with higher reported historical lynchings (Ward et al. 2021).
These findings push forward questions about the punitiveness of discipline and how corporal punishment practices embody historical structures of racism. Some students, based on personal characteristics, are disproportionately more likely to receive such punishment. If these students are more likely to face this practice, this suggests that schools are a source of punishment that provides academic authorities the ability to target certain groups. Ultimately, schools should not be a place where the production of harm is tolerable; furthermore, the evidence supports the abolition of school corporal punishment across the United States.
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