Why Are We Still Hitting?
250,000 kids were paddled last year. 21 states still allow corporal punishment from preschool to high school.
What's wrong with this picture?
By Samantha Cleaver
Evan Couzo, a new and nervous teacher, was getting to know his students on the first day at their Mississippi middle school in 2005 when he heard a repetitive “thwack” sound outside his door. Distracted, Couzo asked his students what the noise was. They giggled and informed him that “someone was likely getting a whuppin’.” When he opened his door, Couzo saw that his students were right—a student was standing against a wall, and a teacher stood behind him, paddle in hand.
In the three years that Couzo taught in the Mississippi Delta, “paddlings happened every hour of every day,” he says, for sleeping in class, talking back, or disrespect. Compared with other new teachers, Couzo didn’t have many discipline problems. “I spent so much time getting to know my students and getting them to like me,” he remembers, “that I could use the force of my personality to get them to do what I wanted.” But every once in a while, he did send students to the office for misbehavior, knowing that, once there, they’d be paddled.
Even though he didn’t agree with it, Couzo understood why paddles were used. “It’s an easy way to gain something like respect,” he says. “At least the students understood up front what the consequences were going to be.” Couzo’s experience isn’t an isolated case. Far from a punishment of the past, schools in nearly half of the country use corporal punishment, and in startling numbers, raising ethics and policy questions for all administrators.
Punishment Past and Present
as a teacher and administrator, Dave Harcum, former superintendent of Winton Woods School District in Ohio, admits that he “used to be a proponent of paddling.” One time, he remembers, he paddled a student who reached around to protect himself, and Harcum ended up paddling the boy’s hands. Eventually, it dawned on him, remembers Harcum, “if this is working, why am I paddling the same kids all the time?”
Later, as a superintendent, Harcum shifted his district away from corporal punishment, and now he regrets the paddlings he gave. But corporal punishment isn’t entirely eradicated in Ohio. According to data collected by the Center for Effective Discipline, 202 students received 321 paddlings in Ohio schools during the 2006–07 school year.
Across the United States, 21 states, including Mississippi and Ohio, still allow corporal punishment in schools. In a groundbreaking August 2008 report, the aclu and Human Rights Watch (hrw) reported that at least 223,190 students received corporal punishment in the previous year. Texas had the largest number of incidents (49,197), and Mississippi had the highest percentage (7.5 percent of public school students). Other states that reported significant numbers of corporal punishment incidents: Florida, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee, and Louisiana. The concern: HRW suspects that the actual numbers are much higher, as many incidents go unreported.
Defining the Paddle
corporal punishment is any punishment involving physical force that’s designed to cause pain or discomfort. We all know the traditional Dickensian image of a teacher paddling a student on the buttocks or thighs with a wooden stick or paddle, or striking him with a belt or ruler. But it can also include extended time out or physical restraint. Districts may specify that corporal punishment shouldn’t cause injury or pain to the child, and they may outline the number of blows that students can receive. But these limits are hard to define or enforce (How would being paddled with a large wooden stick not hurt?), and students report bruises and trouble sitting afterwards. Nick, now a college sophomore, was paddled in the fifth and seventh grades in his school in Drew, Mississippi. “I cried,” he remembers. “There were no bruises but it hurt.” In high school, Nick heard other students scream and cry as they were paddled. “We would have classes next to the office, and we could hear the licks through the wall,” he says.
We don’t have a lot of research on corporal punishment in schools. “Administrators tend to think that it ‘works,’” says Elizabeth Gershoff, associate professor of social work at the University of Michigan who’s studied corporal punishment extensively. “But they have no evidence.” From research on corporal punishment in homes, we know that kids who are spanked have a higher incidence of mental health problems, difficulties in their relationships with their parents, and are more likely to have legal problems as adults. After corporal punishment, children may also have difficulty sleeping, suicidal thoughts, anger, and increased dropout rates, says the Society for Adolescent Medicine.
Some Are Paddled, Some Not
equally important, as human rights Watch consistently found, corporal punishment is used unfairly. That is, it is the chosen method of discipline with some groups more than others. Boys made up 78.3 percent of students paddled, and African-American students were paddled at more than twice the rate that we’d expect (African-Americans are 17.1 percent of the student population, but received 35.6 percent of paddlings). Special education students also received a large number of paddlings; in 2006–07, 41,972 special education students were paddled, some even for behaviors related to their disability. But, whether it’s used to try and extinguish a behavior, or to teach a lesson, experience has shown that corporal punishment rarely accomplishes the ultimate goal of changing behavior. But what are the alternatives?
when Olley B. Shirley, former board president in Jackson, Mississippi, was working to ban corporal punishment from her district in the early 1990s, her biggest concern was that punishment stemmed from poor teaching. “Children acted up in classes when teachers were not really teaching,” says Shirley, “and those classrooms seemed to have paddles a lot.” Shirley and the school board faced resistance from parents. “They said we were taking discipline out of the schools,” she remembers, and it was a challenge to tackle the status quo.Corporal punishment may persist because teachers and principals see problem behaviors stop for 10 to 15 minutes. After a paddling, says Robert Horner, University of Oregon professor of special education, pain delivers neurochemicals in the brain that suppresses all activity. And, as well, there could be an emotional component to it. “Human nature says that when you have a student who is a real problem ... it’s very easy to lose your control and lose your patience,” says Horner.
Teachers and staff, for their part, may not know what else to do. Stephen Camarata, Research Program on Communication and Learning director with the JFK Center for Research and Development, remembers one situation where a 14-year-old student who had autism was held down for two hours. In that situation, and in many others, says Camarata, corporal punishment “is a quick and inefficient way of handling a situation, and people are desperate.”Often, corporal punishment is given as an option—two licks or suspension—and supporters argue that it keeps kids in school instead of sending them home, bolstering attendance rates. “Suspension wasn’t a good option,” says Couzo, the former Mississippi schoolteacher, “because it makes your statistics look bad if you’re an administrator.”
Finally, in some areas, the “spare the rod, spoil the child” idea is well supported. In Maven, Mississippi, when Janet (her name has been changed) fought back after her high school–aged daughter was paddled for violating the school dress code, the community rallied around the school. “They’ve never encountered anyone who’s stood up and opposed it,” says Janet. “That’s the norm here.”
When corporal punishment is used in a district, there’s not much that parents can do to stop it. A 1977 Supreme Court decision (Ingraham v. Wright) ruled that the cruel and unusual punishment clause from the Constitution does not apply to disciplinary corporal punishment in school. This lack of protection is a concern. “You can’t pursue a simple assault case against a teacher who hits a child” in school, says Alice Farmer, author of the aclu/hrw study, “but if they hit a person on the street, you can pursue that case.”
The Numbers Are Dropping
the number of schools using corporal punishment has been on a steady decline since the 1980s. In recent years, the reported number of students who were paddled dropped from 342,038 in the 2000–01 school year to 272,028 in 2004–05, and even farther in 2006–07. Twenty-nine states prohibit the use of corporal punishment in schools, as do 95 of the 100 largest school districts. “National opinion is changing against corporal punishment in schools,” says Gershoff, the University of Michigan professor.
Internationally, the U.S. is one of the few industrialized countries that still allows corporal punishment in schools. Already, 106 countries have outlawed corporal punishment, and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child calls corporal punishment in schools a violation of a child’s right to freedom from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and physical violence. The only industrialized countries that allow corporal punishment are the United States and Australia. Still, discipline remains a top concern for districts.
The Administrator’s Role: Addressing Discipline
since columbine and 9/11, discipline is an increasingly pressing issue in schools. “The tolerance level [for pranks and misbehavior] has been reduced significantly,” says Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “It’s almost zero tolerance.” David Bloomfield, professor of educational leadership at Brooklyn College and author of American Public Educational Law (Peter Lang, 2007), has seen a change during the past decade. “Districts want more authority to discipline students more harshly,” he says. “I think that it is a general social phenomenon, with schools desiring greater authority to keep order, and order itself being a higher priority than ever.”
Even if teachers aren’t using paddles, it doesn’t guarantee that discipline is effective. Alternatives to corporal punishment like card systems, putting kids’ names on the chalkboard, and asking kids to work for delayed rewards are all strategies that can ultimately fail. So how can you make sure that your teachers and principals are teaching children how to behave for the long term? Here are some recommendations.
Stay Positive: If your state or district still uses corporal punishment, HRW recommends that you first ban the practice. Then, implement a discipline system that addresses problems in a nonviolent way (see sidebar).
The most common concern that Jack Conrath, retired superintendent of the Whitehall City Schools in Franklin County, Ohio, hears from teachers is that their principal doesn’t support their behavior programs. Back teachers’ behavior plans, provide resources and professional development, and employ behavior analysts and school psychologists to perform behavior assessments and develop behavior plans.
Focus on Transitions: To help address students who were “checking out” of school in the Visalia Unified School District in California, area administrator Doug Bartsch analyzed the records of 73 students who had been expelled. He found that transitions were particularly devastating for these students, and focused on helping students who were at risk move from elementary to middle to high school. So far, says Bartsch, they’ve seen an improvement.
Provide Clear Guidelines
If your district doesn’t have a handbook for teachers, consider creating one. “A lot of things happen because there is a sense of desperation at one level,” says the JFK Center’s Camarata, “and districts need to provide people with good support and information on what to do if there is a problem.”