Kids Keep Getting Hit at School, Even Where Corporal Punishment is Banned
By Mark Keierleber | May 19, 2021
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When a Florida elementary school principal was caught on video spanking a 6-year-old girl with a wooden paddle last month, it sparked national outrage and a criminal investigation. But for those who believed the principal should face arrest, a state prosecutor’s memo stung like a slap to the face.
Florida is one of 19 states in the country that allows corporal punishment in schools, but it’s prohibited in Hendry County, where the little girl was beaten, and state law requires educators to follow local rules. That was not enough, however, for state prosecutors to hold Principal Melissa Carter responsible for any wrongdoing. In a three-page memo outlining their decision not to pursue charges, they instead questioned the credibility of the girl’s mother, an undocumented immigrant who filmed the campus incident and shared it with local television station WINK. Officials concluded the mother consented to the beating and at no point spoke up to “raise any objection.”
That the prohibition in her own school district did not protect the Florida first-grader from being hit is just one example of how corporal punishment persists even in places where the practice is explicitly outlawed. About a dozen school districts in states where corporal punishment is banned reported using it on students more than 300 times during the 2017-18 school year, according to an analysis by The 74 of the most recent civil rights data from the U.S. Department of Education. And in Louisiana, a state where paddling is permitted except on students with disabilities, data show that special education students were hit nearly 100 times in 2017-18. Years of data have shown that students of color and those with disabilities are disproportionately subjected to corporal punishment, a practice that goes on despite a substantial body of research showing its harmful effects on youth development.
To state Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Democrat who has worked for several years to ban corporal punishment in Florida schools, the Hendry County video is proof that physical punishment continues under the radar in her state. Yet without a statewide ban, she said it’s “very, very difficult for prosecutors to have a case” when educators dole out corporal punishment to students in violation of local rules.
“This is a major problem when, even in areas where supposedly it’s not supposed to happen, it’s still happening,” Taddeo told The 74. “When the school boards say ‘We don’t want this in our counties,’ we as parents think ‘OK, that takes care of it.’ It does not.”
Districts in six states and the District of Columbia reported instances of corporal punishment in 2017-18 despite laws prohibiting its use. Of them, Chicago Public Schools accounted for the lion’s share, with children in the nation’s third-largest school district struck 226 times in school that year.
In a statement, Chicago Public Schools spokesman James Gherardi didn’t refute the numbers but said that officials have worked in recent years to “better prevent instances of abuse and hold accountable any adult who has harmed students, as well as those who have fallen short of their duty to keep students safe.” He said the district reports all corporal punishment allegations to the U.S. Department of Education. Since 2019, all educators who face such accusations “are immediately removed from the classroom and thoroughly investigated.”
In September, the Chicago district agreed to pay $400,000 in court settlements after lawsuits accused educators of using physical force on two children with disabilities. Both educators were charged with felony aggravated battery. At the time, the students’ attorney said the incidents are part of a district culture where children with disabilities are “routinely subjected to physical and emotional abuse” at school.
Nationally, educators used corporal punishment on K-12 students nearly 100,000 times during the 2017-18 school year, according to the federal Civil Rights Data Collection. While educators’ use of corporal punishment has declined significantly in recent years, the practice remains prevelant almost exclusively in southern states where it is allowed. Mississippi was the national leader, with educators there subjecting students to corporal punishment nearly 28,000 times in one year.
The national numbers are likely a significant undercount, said Miriam Rollin, a director at the National Center for Youth Law. Every school district in the country self-reports its data to the federal government and they’ve long been accused of underreporting data on the use of restraint and seclusion and other forms of harsh discipline. The same is likely true with corporal punishment, she said.
Corporal punishment is generally defined as using physical pain through hitting, paddling, spanking or other forms of physical force as a means of discipline. Florida law defines the practice as the “moderate use of physical force” to maintain school rules. Meanwhile, one report defines it as “violent school discipline” through means that are “generally assaultive acts.”
In Louisiana, where educators are generally allowed to strike students, state and federal data show that children with disabilities continue to be subjected to corporal punishment despite a 2017 state law that banned its use on youth with special needs. In fact, state data show that Louisiana educators continued to use corporal punishment on children with disabilities as recently as last year.
Ted Beasley, the Louisiana Department of Education spokesman, said he was aware that districts continue to subject children with disabilities to corporal punishment despite the ban. But ultimately, it’s up to the very school districts that use physical discipline to investigate “instances of improper corporal punishment,” he said in an email. He said that parents could file formal complaints with the department if they believe their children were subjected to corporal punishment in violation of federal special education law that affords students with disabilities additional protections, but none have taken that step.
The 74 reached out to more than a dozen Louisiana districts that reported multiple instances of corporal punishment on children with disabilities since the statewide ban went into effect, but most didn’t respond or declined requests for comment. A few offered explanations.
Data show that children with disabilities were subjected to corporal punishment at Caddo Parish Public Schools in Shreveport during both the 2017-18 and 2019-20 school years. Mary Nash-Wood, the district spokeswoman, acknowledged that some school leaders “fought tooth and nail” against a corporal punishment ban and that two educators faced unspecified “disciplinary action” for “administering impermissible corporal punishment” on students with disabilities in violation of state law.
She said the district has since banned the use of corporal punishment on all students, including those without disabilities, and has trained educators to use restorative justice and recognize the effects of childhood trauma. The effort required extensive work “to change a mindset around corporal punishment and discipline to focus on why a child may be acting out rather than moving to punishment,” she said in an email.
The Vernon Parish School District in Leesville reported 21 instances of corporal punishment on children with disabilities during the 2017-18 and 2019-20 school years, according to the state and federal data. But Assistant Superintendent Mike Kay denied that any of the instances ran afoul of the state law. Instead, he said that the students were classified as needing special education services in the months after they were hit in school, but that distinction wasn’t apparent in the data.
Meanwhile in Florida, where individual districts are allowed to craft their own corporal punishment policies, the practice is used almost exclusively in the state’s rural, northernmost counties. During the 2017-18 school year, 19 of the state’s countywide school districts reported using physical punishment on kids more than 1,800 times.
But Taddeo, the state senator, suspects the practice persists elsewhere. On several occasions, the state’s decentralized approach has allowed educators to avoid criminal charges after hitting kids in violation of local rules, she said. In 2014, for example, a teacher’s aide in Broward County was arrested and accused of hitting a 10-year-old boy with autism for misbehaving in class. District policy prohibits corporal punishment in Broward County schools and an education committee found probable cause of alleged battery, yet her only punishment was a letter of reprimand, according to the Miami Herald.
Criminal charges against the aide were ultimately dropped and prosecutors wrote that they “could not in good faith” disregard state law permitting corporal punishment in schools despite the local rules. Five years later, the same teacher’s aide faced accusations that she cursed at and belittled children with disabilities.
“It’s against the law to impose corporal punishment on your cat or your dog or your horse, but you can do it to a little child. So it needs to end. It’s barbaric and it opens the door to abuse.” —Brent Probinsky, Florida attorney
The most recent incident in Hendry County offers another example, said Bacardi Jackson, a managing attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Though prosecutors concluded that the young girl’s mother consented to the paddling, that detail should be irrelevant in Hendry County where local rules prohibit educators from hitting kids, she said.
The principal “should have known the law that applies to her own school,” she said. “The bottom line for us is this was illegal, it should not have happened to this girl.”
Attorney Brent Probinsky, who represents the girl’s mother, maintains that the paddling amounted to felony aggravated battery but prosecutors’ “flawed legal analysis” let Hendry County educators off the hook for what he called “a very brutal and savage punishment.” Hendry County school district officials declined to comment.
“It would be an aggravated battery if you hit an adult with that paddle [and] the fact that she hit a little first-grader makes it even worse,” Probinsky said, adding that the practice should be banned from schools in Florida and nationwide. “It’s against the law to impose corporal punishment on prisoners. It’s against the law to impose corporal punishment on children in youth detention facilities. It’s against the law to impose corporal punishment on your cat or your dog or your horse, but you can do it to a little child. So it needs to end. It’s barbaric and it opens the door to abuse.”
For Rollin of the National Center for Youth Law, the mere fact that the principal had a wooden paddle on hand in a county that bans corporal punishment raises additional red flags.
“Clearly it was going on” beyond the one incident caught on video, she said. “You don’t just happen to have a paddle laying around the office when you’ve never used it before.”
‘A good ol’ fashioned spanking’
To its detractors, corporal punishment in schools is an antiquated and damaging vestige of the past. And in many parts of the country, it is. New Jersey became the first state to ban the practice in schools — in 1867 — and all but 19 have since followed suit, most recently New Mexico in 2011.
Today, a considerable body of research suggests the practice can lead to significant and lifelong harms. National groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association have urged educators and parents to refrain from relying on corporal punishment, arguing that it does not bring about improvements in student behavior, but instead could cause emotional, behavioral and academic problems. Among them is a 2017 study in the peer-reviewed Journal of Pediatrics, which found that children who are spanked are far more likely to abuse intimate partners later in life.
In the 1970s, about 4 percent of U.S. students received corporal punishment at school while less than 1 percent of youth were subjected to the practice in recent years. During that time, lawmakers have increasingly put limits on its use.Even in states where the practice remains legal, school districts have imposed their own bans and in Mississippi, the state which outranks all others in striking students, lawmakers prohibited educators from spanking children with disabilities in 2019. In fact, 96 percent of public schools in the U.S. don’t use corporal punishment to discipline kids, according to a 2019 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. That students in just 4 percent of schools can still get hit in class makes it feel “even more unfair,” Jackson said.
“There’s a firm belief among most of our folks that kids, when they get out of line, there’s a direct connection between the rear end and the brain.” —Ted Roush, Suwannee County school district superintendent
But holdouts remain, and several offered passionate rebuttals to critics who hope to do away with physical discipline in schools. Among them is Ted Roush, the superintendent of the Suwannee County school district in northern Florida. His 6,000-student district was among Florida’s most frequent users of corporal punishment in 2017-18, with 230 instances recorded in the federal data. Roush said that people in more conservative and rural regions of the Bible Belt like Suwannee County are “a little more old school in the way they address issues.” By giving students “a couple of swats” with a paddle, he said that educators avoid “more severe disciplinary actions” like suspensions that remove children from classrooms and away from learning.
Students “do respond to a good ol’ fashioned spanking, especially when they’re younger,” he said, adding that on some occasions parents drive down to the school to swat misbehaving children themselves.
“There’s a firm belief among most of our folks that kids, when they get out of line, there’s a direct connection between the rear end and the brain,” he said.
Louisiana state Rep. Danny McCormick, a Republican, offered a similar perspective. He said he supports a 2017 state law that bans corporal punishment on children with disabilities because “Kids with special needs have a different mindset than kids without special needs, so to speak.” But when state lawmakers failed to ban the practice outright earlier this year by a 48-49 vote, he was among the legislators who blocked the bill.
A Louisiana native, McCormick said he was subjected to corporal punishment on a few occasions at school when he was growing up during a time when physical discipline “was just common practice, no big deal.” But such punishment “was always administered with love,” he said, and had a “positive effect” on him.
He cited parental rights as being central to his opposition of a statewide corporal punishment ban “if the parent gives permission for the school to do it.”
“The parents, I support them making the decisions about how their child is disciplined at school,” he added.
‘Vestiges of slavery’
While students of color and those with disabilities are disproporionately subjected to corporal punishment at school compared to their white and nondisabled classmates, one recent report suggests that the roots of corporal pushment in southern schools run deep — with ties to lynching.
The report, published this year in the journal Social Problems, found that in places where lynching was once routine, schools are more likely to rely on corporal punishment today — especially against Black students. The South has a “distinct history of racialized violence for social control purposes,” researchers noted, where the whipping of enslaved Black Americans wasn’t merely a form of punishment but “an explicitly racialized socialization strategy intended to ‘impose upon the slaves that they were slaves.’” Researchers theorized that the legacy of lynching in southern states “may increase the likelihood of violent school discipline,” especially toward Black youth — a reality that could be the result of “explicit and implicit biases.”
To Jackson of the Southern Poverty Law Center, corporal punishment in schools is “clearly one of the many vestiges of slavery.”
“As is lynching itself a vestige of slavery, so too is beating and whipping people,” she said. Corporal punishment is used in schools on students who educators “believe are either less than deserving of grace or people who you believe need to be controlled, people who you believe need to be kept in line as opposed to being nurtured or educated.”
Though previous federal efforts have failed to ban corporal punishment in schools and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the practice in 1977, Rollin, of the National Center for Youth Law, said the Biden administration could combat its continued use through the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. Given corporal punishment’s disparate impact on students of color and those with disabilities, she urged the office to investigate districts for discrimination.
In Louisiana, state Sen. Franklin Foil, a Republican, recognizes that some in his state continue to support corporal punishment in classrooms. So when he proposed legislation to regulate its use in 2017, he focused on children with disabilities after parents with negative experiences brought the issue to his attention. It was a smart political strategy. While his bill passed, legislation to ban the practice outright failed, albeit by a much larger margin, 34 in favor to 61 against, than the same effort earlier this month. Though he supports a complete ban, he acknowledges it faces steep obstacles, including from school administrators who believe that state lawmakers should stay out of their business.
Foil said he wasn’t aware that Louisiana children with disabilities continued to be subjected to corporal punishment in violation of the law he spearheaded until The 74 brought the data to his attention.
As research on the deleterious effects of corporal punishment builds, Jackson believes that even more educators will turn away from the practice altogether. Soon, she hopes it’ll become nothing more than a passage in the history books.
“There’s a reason we don’t go to the Colosseum and watch lions ripping people open,” she said. “At some point, we have to evolve.”
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