Does corporal punishment have a place in schools?

The dilemma of discipline in K12 and the reality of future trauma

While the controversial practice of corporal punishment declines, it remains legal in 19 states. In those states, boys, black students and children with disabilities are more likely to receive physical punishment than other students, according to recent report by the Society for Research in Child Development.

The 2016 report found that black children in Alabama and Mississippi are 51 percent more likely to receive corporal punishment than their white peers. Boys in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi—where corporal punishment is used more than any other states—are about 75 percent more likely to receive a physical reprimand than girls.

And in many states, children with disabilities are also at a much higher risk for such punishment.

No federal law against it exists. In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its Ingraham v. Wright decision that school corporal punishment is constitutional and left it to states to decide whether or not to allow it.

Since 1978, the practice has declined from 4 percent of students receiving it nationally to less than 0.5 percent today.

Arkansas numbers

In one corporal punishment state, the practice is decreasing, according to research done at the University of Arkansas by Kaitlin Anderson, a doctoral student in the school’s Department of Education Reform, and Gary Ritter, a professor.

In 2013-14, the number of incidents reported dropped to under 20,000, from 36,000 five years earlier.

Did you hear?


students in public schools were subject to corporal punishment in the 2011-12 school year.

Source: U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights

State lawmakers may hesitate to ban the practice because it is seen as an issue of local control. At the same time, it remains a tradition in many rural communities, Ritter says.

“I have not heard of the state imposing a policy to end it, but I get the feeling that ending corporal punishment is something the more progressive districts do” Ritter says.

Discipline dilemmas

Dan Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Projects at UCLA, questions the practice. “I don’t know any administrator that would support it except that some parents may want it or that it’s tradition” he says. “There are a lot of adolescent girls getting hit. How is it ever OK to hit adolescent girls?”

But other forms of punishment, such as detention and suspension, remove students from class, which is also detrimental, Anderson says.

Corporal punishment is usually used for major offenses such as fighting, setting off fireworks, bullying or drinking alcohol on school grounds, but it can be used for smaller infractions such as disrespecting a staff member or cell phone use during class, according to a 2008 report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and ACLU, as well as a 2015 North Carolina Department of Education report.

Future trauma

In the last days of the Obama administration, Education Secretary John King Jr. had urged state leaders to end corporal punishment in schools.

Educators and others should understand that hitting children can lead to mental health problems and persistent negative relationships with adults, says Losen. “It’s purely political and very local” he says. “If it was harmless, I’d say ‘Why not let the local control rule?’ But this isn’t one of those cases.

The case against corporal punishment

The Social Policy Report by the Society for Research in Child Development makes the following arguments against corporal punishment:

1. It can lead to serious injury, particularly if a teacher or administrator uses an object, such as a paddle, to spank a student. The Society for Adolescent Medicine estimates that 10,000 to 20,000 students annually require medical treatment for bruises, nerve and muscle damage, and broken bones suffered during physical punishment.

2. It is not effective at teaching children how to behave. The more children receive corporal punishment, the more likely they are to be aggressive or disobedient, according to a 2016 Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor study and a Regev, Gueron-Sela and Atzaba-Poria 2012 report.

3. Schools are one of the last public institutions where corporal punishment is legal. It has been banned nationally in prisons and military training facilities. In most states, it has been banned at child-care centers, residential treatment centers and juvenile detention facilities.

4. Corporal punishment is considered a “human rights violation” by the international human rights community, in accordance with United Nations policy.

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