During the 2011 to 2012 school year, American public school officials in 19 states used corporal punishment 167,000 times.
We don’t know if that is 167,000 kids, or a smaller group of kids that received multiple punishments. What we do know is that at least 167,000 times in one school year, a school official hit a child. This punishment took place even in light of ample evidence suggesting that corporal punishment can increase aggression and hinder learning.
What follows is a primer for parents who want to better understand which states permit corporal punishment, which students are most likely to receive physical punishment, and the surprising heroes attempting to ban corporal punishment in their states.
The states that allow corporal punishment
Most of the debate surrounding corporal punishment focuses on public schools. That’s because all but two states – New Jersey and Iowa – allow corporal punishment in private schools.
The number of states allowing corporal punishment in public schools depends on which report you read. A report by the Society for Research in Child Development claims that 31 states, as well as the District of Colombia, specifically ban corporal punishment in public schools. The U.S. Department of Education put the numbers a bit differently, with only 28 states banning corporal punishment and 22 allowing it.
The discrepancy is explained by the extenuating circumstances allowed for in some state laws. For example, in Maine, corporal punishment was banned in 1975, but according to state law, school officials are permitted to use force against children when a child presents a danger to him or herself, or others. Some researchers count Maine and other states like it as permitting corporal punishment, even though the states themselves reported zero cases of corporal punishment in the nation’s most recent survey of corporal punishment.
A similar discrepancy occurs when counting the states that allow corporal punishment. Some put the number at 15. Others put the number at 19. That’s because some states specifically permit corporal punishment, while others simply have no legislation regarding corporal punishment.
No matter how researchers count, all agree that most of the corporal punishment in the country is concentrated in a handful of states. Just seven states: Oklahoma, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Texas, and Mississippi, account for 80 percent of corporal punishment cases in the U.S. Texas and Mississippi alone count for 35 percent of corporal punishment cases.
Which kids get hit?
Corporal punishment is not evenly distributed across all groups.
A 2009 Human Rights Watch report found that students with disabilities make up 14 percent of the population, but 19 percent of the population of kids subjected to corporal punishment, meaning that they are physically disciplined at a higher rate than their peers.
A report in The Atlantic found that black students, who make up 16 percent of the public school population, accounted for 35 percent of corporal punishment cases, meaning that they were three times more likely to be paddled than their white peers.
The rates of corporal punishment for males are even more disproportional than those for race. Boys are about four times as likely as girls to receive physical discipline. In some districts, that rate is five times as many.
Can parents opt out of corporal punishment for their children?
In some school districts where corporal punishment is still used, parents are given the opportunity to opt out of physical punishment, usually by filing an annual form. In other school districts, parents are notified of a child’s misbehavior and then given the opportunity to approve or disapprove of corporal punishment. In some states, like Missouri, not all districts allow parents to opt out.
Even in states where parents do have the opportunity to opt out, they can feel as though they have no choice to let school officials hit their children. Shana Perez, whose five-year-old was paddled in 2016, highlights the problems of giving parents the ability to “opt out” of paddling by opting into other penalties such as out-of-school suspension.
Perez had already been arrested for truancy after keeping her sick son home from school for too many days, and so believed that she would be arrested if she did not allow him to be paddled for spitting at teachers while running around in the bus line. A choice between your child being hit by the principal and you being put in jail (and thus taken away from your child) is hardly a choice.
Paddling is offered as an impossible “choice”
Paddling is often an impossible choice for students who, much like their parents, also feel that they cannot “opt out.”
Many proponents of corporal punishment will argue that students always have a choice. At Robbinsville High School in North Carolina, principal David Matheson offers students a choice: paddling or in-school suspension. Most students, Matheson asserts, choose the paddling so that they don’t miss school. That choice is often pointed to by educators and legislators as proof that they’re not hurting kids. Kids are choosing their punishment, and many opt for the paddling.
In a debate over a 2017 Arkansas State Senate bill to ban corporal punishment, Senator Alan Clark used his own son as an example, saying that he would have had “fire in [his] eyes” if his son had been suspended for three days instead of paddled. Senator Joyce Elliott, who sponsored the bill, asserted that Clark had been “forced into a false choice” between suspension and paddling.
Legislators like Elliott, as well as researchers across the country, are arguing for a third choice: non-punitive disciplinary methods.
Kids working to change the system
However, it has been a good year for students looking to corporal punishment for an education…in the legislative system.
In Arizona, high school student Taylor Garman was inspired by the Shana Perez’s viral video. She contacted State Senator Don Shooter about her research, and the two are now working to craft a bill banning corporal punishment.
Alex Young, a student from Louisville, Kentucky, led a group of students to write a bill for the Kentucky Youth Assembly. When his proposed corporal punishment ban passed the assembly, he took it to state representative Jim Wayne, who helped Young revise the bill and introduced it in February 2017. Although the bill was defeated, Young and his fellow students are still busy contacting state Republicans in order to find a co-sponsor who will help them re-introduce the bill in 2018.
You and your kids can read the existing corporal punishment laws for each state and territory here. If you’re unpleasantly surprised about what you find, maybe it’s time to follow in Garman’s and Young’s footsteps and contact your local representatives.