Did you assume that all states have outlawed corporal punishment in schools? Well, they haven’t, but that might change soon.
The election of Donald Trump and the sharply divisive reactions to his presidency continue to dominate the news. My social media timeline has never been so heavily politicized — with the exception of 2014 when my native Scotland almost voted to leave the (not so) United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Considering the global climate that we are living through today, it is not surprising that many political issues remain under reported, especially when they do not relate directly (or indirectly) to Trump.
On January 3rd 2017, US Congressman Alcee Hastings introduced the “Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act of 2017”, and the bill has currently been referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. In comparison to some other sociopolitical issues, the proposed bill has received much less news coverage.
As it stands, there are 15 states that explicitly allow corporal punishment in schools and a further seven that have no statewide laws prohibiting the practice. Many corporal punishment cases, in schools, occur in some states in the South. That is not breaking news. The outcome of the US Supreme Court decision in 1977, following Ingraham v Wright, gave codified approval for states across the nation to legally support corporal punishment in public schools. In recent decades, however, more and more states have said no to the practice.
To be honest, it does not surprise me that spanking in schools is commonly considered a “thing of the past” or “from a bygone era”, especially when its usage has sharply declined in recent years and decades. This can largely, but not exclusively, be attributed to continued shifts in public opinion and subsequent changes in legislation or policy within certain states and school districts. Factually speaking, most US children do not receive physical chastisement in schools. By 2009, 95 of the 100 largest school districts in the US had implemented laws banning the practice. These include the densely populated areas of Atlanta, Dallas, and Memphis, for example — metropolitan areas within states that have not banned the disciplinary measure.
However, a fact-based argument that spanking in schools is a rarity should not overshadow or gloss over the fact that it still exists. According to analysis conducted by Education Week, corporal punishment is more prevalent in US schools than is often realized. Last year, Education Week published a report citing that in 2013-14 over 109,000 school children were physically punished in US schools, according to information from the US Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection. Furthermore, an article published in The Atlantic in 2015 drew upon information provided by the civil rights report and outlined that 35% of spankings in schools — during 2011-12 — occurred in Mississippi and Texas.
It would be erroneous to state that the media has ignored efforts and initiatives to call for a nationwide ban on the practice. Every once and a while a legal, yet contentious paddling will be reported that renews public attention and stirs an emotional debate. I recall, almost a year ago, the breaking news story that a five-year-old boy in Georgia was paddled by his principal for allegedly spitting on another student. The credibility of the schools policy, including the legality and morality of corporal punishment, sparked widespread discussion on social media after the mother made the (controversial) decision to post a video taken of her child and educators before the incident. The video went viral.
Rep. Hastings’ proposed bill is not inherently unique, and similar bills over the years have been brought before lawmakers in Washington DC and within states. For example, back in 2010 a New York Congresswoman proposed banning paddling in all US schools, and Colorado may be the next state to outlaw the practice in all of their public schools and state-subsidized child care facilities.
There is a great deal of disparity across the US. In recent years, states such as Ohio and New Mexico have outlawed the practice, whereas other states have not followed suit. Texas is just one state that provides parents or guardians with the option of signing a waiver form. In other areas it is gradually being phased out — with some school boards concerned that corporal punishment could lead to costly lawsuits.
My aversion to spanking in schools does not simply stem from the fact I was never exposed to it, but because I do not believe that violence in the classroom is conducive to what should be a safe, productive and positive learning environment. Of course, I recognize that there are ranges of behavioral issues in schools, and I have a lot of respect for educators who are doing the important job of invaluably shaping the lives of our children. However, action that causes pain or humiliation to a student is more likely to result in a lack of respect for authority and to encourage negative emotions, such as fear and resentment.
There is also evidence that the practice is often exercised on an arbitrary basis and may be at the whim of a teacher. It does not rest well with my moral conscience that several reports have been published indicating that black students are more likely to be hit than white students. Organizations such as the ACLU and Human Rights Watch have reported that there are instances where spanking is not just used for serious offenses (such as fighting or other abusive behavior), but for minor infractions including chewing gum or for tardiness. Throughout the years, extensive studies have produced reports that not only provide evidence of racial disparities, but that boys and children with disabilities are disproportionately affected. Thus, not only is the policy inconsistent, unjust and open to abuse, but could very well impact on a student’s ability to reach their highest standards in academia and the development of important social skills.
A significant amount of individuals and groups across the US agree with the sentiments of Rep. Hastings. What is noticeable about the list of organizations that are against corporal punishment in schools are the voices from within the medical community, and those involved in education. For example, the National PTA, The National Association of School Psychologists, Mental Health America, Association of University Centers on Disabilities, and the National Education Association are just a few of the groups that have expressed concern in recent years.
There are lots of reforms that should be implemented across the US that not only have the potential to progress and advance educational attainment, but also prepare children to be compassionate and responsible citizens. The widespread teaching of civics should be a central feature of contemporary education, including the teaching of key life skills — such as gun safety, voluntary work, and money management training.
Reform will not happen overnight — especially with political hurdles to overcome, and mindsets that view the punishment as traditional and reasonable. I suspect Rep. Hastings’ proposed act will not be successful any time soon, but it is important for the opponents of corporal punishment in schools to not give up until the practice is outlawed in all 50 states.