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Deborah J. Vagins Headshot

An Arcane, Destructive -- and Still Legal -- Practice

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On June 29, 2010, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) introduced the "Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act," H.R. 5628. This bill would ban the use of corporal punishment in public schools and private schools that serve students receiving federal services. It is a huge step forward in the fight to make sure that our schools are places where students and teachers come to interact in positive ways that encourage students’ academic and personal growth. Spearheaded by the ACLU, dozens of organizations, individuals and coalitions representing hundreds of groups have joined a sign-on letter in support of this legislation and against this destructive practice.

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Photo: Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) introducing H.R. 5628, the "Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act" (from left to right: Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU; Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers; and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.))

H.R. 5628 focuses on a number of important measures to protect students and create a more positive school climate, including:

  • Banning corporal punishment in public schools and private schools which serve students receiving federal services;
  • Requiring states to submit plans to the Secretary of Education describing their policies eliminating corporal punishment and making school personnel and parents aware of the ban;
  • Allowing for the withholding of funds for failure to comply with the act;
  • Instituting a national assessment to be carried out by the secretary to determine compliance with the act and to identify best practices, including training models that emphasize positive behavior supports; and
  • Creating a grant program, in which the secretary may award grants to state educational agencies to improve school climate and implement school-wide positive behavior support approaches.

These measures are essential given that corporal punishment in schools impacts students’ academic performance and emotional well-being. However, corporal punishment in schools is still legal in 20 states, and according to recent Department of Education data, over 200,000 students were subjected to this form of discipline in public schools in the 2006–2007 school year. Corporal punishment against a student is often done by striking them with a wooden paddle in the shape of a flattened baseball bat. According to the bill’s findings, this arcane practice can cause physical problems such as abrasions, bruising, severe muscle injuries, hematomas, whiplash damage and life-threatening hemorrhages. However, such "discipline" is frequently applied for minor school infractions. According to A Violent Education, an ACLU and Human Rights Watch report, children have been paddled for behavior as minor as being late, small violations of dress codes, talking back to a teacher or going to the bathroom without permission.

While no student should be subjected to corporal punishment, research indicates it is disproportionately applied — African-American students and students with disabilities are much more likely to be paddled than their peers. According to the Department of Education, while African-Americans made up 17.1 percent of public school students nationwide, they accounted for 35.6 percent of those who were paddled during the 2006–2007 school year. One Mississippi high school student, documented in A Violent Education noted: "[E]very time you walk down the hall you see a black kid getting whupped. I would say out of the whole school year there’s only about three white kids who have gotten paddled."

Students with disabilities are also disproportionately affected. Although students with disabilities made up 13.7 percent of public school students during the 2006–2007 school year, they constituted 18.8 percent of students who were corporally punished. Often, they are subject to physical punishment for behaviors that arise out of their disabilities.

Instead of relying on corporal punishment, schools should develop school-wide positive behavior supports, an evidence-based approach to school discipline which allows schools to proactively target problematic behavior and develop approaches that can improve school climate and academic outcomes by reducing school discipline referrals.

Hitting children in schools is an arcane and destructive form of discipline that does not produce educational environments in which students can thrive. It should no longer be the case that children in some states receive greater protections in detention facilities than they do in their public schools. By prohibiting the use of corporal punishment, and encouraging schools to find more positive ways of disciplining students, H.R. 5628 gives a strong voice to students, parents and teachers who hope all schools can focus on the safety and academic achievement of students.