Corporal punishment has declined so rapidly in the United States in the last 15 years that many people think it's practically nonexistent in modern American public schools.
To the contrary, more than 109,000 students were paddled, swatted, or otherwise physically punished in U.S. classrooms in 2013-14, according to Education Week Research Center analyses of the most recent wave of federal civil rights data.
Corporal punishment is often seen by proponents as a good alternative to suspending students. But in a field that requires specialized certification for all manner of programs and subjects, corporal punishment stands out for the virtual nonexistence of training or detailed procedures on how to paddle children of different sizes, ages, or psychological profiles. And in the absence of such training or guidance, the practice can leave students more vulnerable to injury and districts at greater risk of expensive lawsuits.
Federal civil rights data show students experienced corporal punishment in 21 states and more than 4,000 schools nationwide during the 2013-14 school year. Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Oklahoma physically disciplined the most students in 2013-14—though the practice continues to be the most widespread in Mississippi, where more than half of students attend schools that use paddling and other physical discipline. But students were physically punished even in a few states that prohibit the practice.
Even within the states where it was most common, paddling was far from evenly distributed. Nationwide, students eligible for school meal programs—a proxy for low-income status—were more likely to attend schools that use corporal punishment than students who don't qualify.
That makes sense, considering the higher poverty levels in the Southern states that make up the bulk of states allowing corporal punishment. However, within nearly all the states that allow corporal punishment, wealthier students are less likely than low-income students to attend a school that actually uses the practice.
For example, low-income students in Tennessee are 1.38 times more likely to attend a school that uses corporal punishment when compared to higher-income students. The same pattern holds in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Oklahoma.
However, in Mississippi, the state that uses corporal punishment most extensively, the reverse is true: Students who don't qualify for school meals are a bit more likely to attend schools that paddle, 59 percent versus 55 percent for low-income students.
Both white and black students are more likely than students of other races to attend a school that allows corporal punishment, but black students are disproportionately likely to experience physical discipline. Based on the federal data, white students made up about 50 percent of all those who experienced corporal punishment—but they made up about 60 percent of the student population in their schools. Black students, by contrast, made up 22 percent of all students attending schools using corporal punishment, but 38 percent of those who received such discipline nationwide.
The racial gap becomes more conspicuous when you compare rates of corporal punishment for white versus black students within the schools that documented it: Black students experienced corporal punishment at twice the rate of white students, 10 percent versus 5 percent.
"We do see corporal punishment as just one piece of the school-to-prison pipeline and the disproportionate disciplining of students of color," said Rhonda Brownstein, the legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
While other racial groups made up too small a portion of the enrollment to take a meaningful statistical measure in many of the schools in states that allowed corporal punishment, some of them did show up in the data. In Oklahoma, for example, which has a significant and often disadvantaged Native American population, those students were nearly twice as likely to attend a school that allowed physical discipline as one that didn't.
"We know that in schools where corporal punishment is practiced, it's often on boys, minorities, and kids with behavior issues. We have this grave irony of hitting primarily boys, a significant percentage of whom have already endured maltreatment," said Victor Vieth, the founder and senior director of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center, which was created by hospital networks to reduce corporal punishment. The group trains officials in hospitals and schools on ways to help parents and educators avoid corporal punishment in responding to children's misbehavior.
The training program has spread rapidly, but for schools using corporal punishment, there's little guidance to be had from the mishmash of vague and sometimes contradictory state laws, district policies, and case laws that address the practice.
Case law was set nearly 40 years ago, with the 1977 case Ingraham v. Wright . The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Florida students who argued that corporal punishment violated their rights to due process under the 14th Amendment as well as their Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. At the time, the high court argued that school officials had considerable discretion to discipline students on campus. Since then, there has been no new federal precedent, though the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights has cited schools' use of corporal punishment in larger investigations of racially disproportionate discipline.
There's no consensus among states on how to regulate physical discipline in schools. Texas allows the discipline unless parents ask in writing that their child not be paddled, while Utah bans physical discipline without a parent's written permission. Alabama allows the practice, and Maryland bans it, but neither state details what corporal punishment would include.
In Louisiana, administrators fill out a form for corporal punishment incidents, naming witnesses, describing the student's behavior and other types of discipline that had already been tried, such as a detention or a meeting with parents. Florida requires its districts that want to use corporal punishment to hold a public hearing every three years.
Policies can vary within states, too. The Texas education agency allows corporal punishment, but its Child Protective Services requires foster parents to opt their students out, arguing it can hurt students with a history of trauma and interfere with students' ability to trust adults.
In part, the variation comes from significant local control of corporal punishment policies. Fifteen states, including Arizona, Arkansas, Mississippi, Wyoming, and Tennessee, explicitly allow corporal punishment but let local school boards decide whether to use it.
That leads to more specific rules in some districts than others. For example, Louisiana's Central Parish stipulates no more than three swats of a paddle "approximately 20 inches long, 4 inches wide, and not exceeding ½ inch in thickness" for any grade, while Pointe Coupee schools use a district-set paddle but limit the number of strikes to three for grades 6 and under, and five for upper grades.
That's a common size for a school paddle, though there's no real consensus on what size implements should be used on children of different ages, nor how many strikes or how hard they should be. From state to state and district to district, spankings are given for infractions from being tardy to fighting, and can run from one to eight strikes in a session, according to a review of paddling-related lawsuits.
In fact, one of the few things states and districts seem to agree on is that those who paddle generally learn as they go.
"I've been doing this a long time and I don't know that I've ever seen anyone offer training," said Daryl Scoggin, the superintendent of the Tate County, Miss., school district on the border of Tennessee. "It's kind of like, I had it done to me, and so I knew what I needed to do. I guess it's more that you learn by watching. … We don't practice on dummies or anything like that."
And even when state or district laws ban physical discipline, individual schools still reported using it. All told, Education Week found 18 schools that reported at least one—and often several—cases of physical punishment in four states that have outlawed the practice on paper. For example, District of Columbia public schools ban "the use or attempted use" of physical force to discipline a student; not just hitting or spanking, but also pushing, grabbing, or "unreasonable restraint." The district keeps a special investigator to evaluate any alleged corporal punishment. Ten schools spanning all grade levels reported such cases in 2013-14, Education Week found.
"Corporal punishment is not allowed in our schools, thus we take it very seriously and follow all protocols when there is an allegation at our schools," said Michelle Lerner, a District of Columbia schools spokesperson. Lerner confirmed reporting the cases Education Week found, but declined to comment on the specifics of them or allow the investigator to discuss trends in the district.
Administrators at other schools told Education Week that the illegal cases were caused by reporting errors in the federal Civil Rights Data Collection. This is possible—the massive biennial survey has had inaccuracies in prior years—but Mary Schifferli of the Education Department's office for civil rights said each school and district had to certify its data as accurate, in a system that flags potential issues such as when a school reports corporal punishment incidents after saying that it did not use corporal punishment.
National Trail public schools in Ohio, for example, listed at least 29 corporal punishment incidents across four categories in two schools. "I have no idea why we have any instances listed with corporal punishment. We do not utilize corporal punishment," said Jeff Parker, the National Trail superintendent, who plans to file for a correction with the Education Department.
Nationwide, corporal punishment seems to be on a steady decline: from more than 300,000 students in 2000 to more than 109,000 in 2013-14 nationwide, according to Education Department estimates.
The Education Department does not bar physical discipline in K-12 schools, but the federal Head Start program prohibits its use among early-education grantees.
A long list of national education and child welfare groups, including teachers' unions, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and associations for state education departments and boards of education, school nurses, counselors, and psychologists, have also come out against the practice.
Additional reporting and research by research intern Jack Williams and editorial intern Carmen Constantinescu.