Hechinger Report Takes Hard Look at School Paddling

By Mark Walsh — April 17, 2014 2 min read
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In Holmes County, Miss., teachers “sometimes admonish errant students to ‘talk to the wood or go to the hood,’” Sarah Carr writes in a Hechinger Report story this week on corporal punishment in schools.

The slogan refers to being paddled or facing an out-of-school suspension, though many students where such punishment prevails don’t even have the choice to avoid the paddle.

The main thrust of Carr’s story, which also appears in The Nation magazine, is that similar to racial disparities in school suspensions, “black children are far more likely to get paddled at school than white ones.”

Carr writes that notwithstanding recent federal guidance on reducing racial disparities in school discipline, “both the guidelines and the national conversation have overlooked the brutal truths when it comes to physical discipline in the schools, which still occurs tens of thousands of times a year.”

In 2012, she reports, black children made up 18 percent of the U.S. student population but 35 percent of reported incidents of corporal punishment in states that allow the practice, based on data from the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights.

Carr’s enterprising story goes beyond numbers. She visits Lexington, Miss., (in Holmes County), where 99 percent of the students in the public school system are African-American. School staffers paddled students 351 times during the 2012-13 school year, Carr writes, and though the prevalence of the practice varies widely around the state, some three dozen Mississippi districts reported more instances of paddling during that school year.

“The national conversation over corporal punishment is muted partly because schoolhouse paddling is limited predominantly to one region: the South,” Carr writes.

She talks to students, teachers, administrators, parents, and others, all with strong opinions about corporal punishment.

In a short piece on the new Vox website that pays tribute to Carr’s story, Libby Nelson has a map showing the 19 states where corporal punishment is still permitted.

And both Carr and Nelson, in their respective stories, note that corporal punishment remains permissible in the United States today because the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1977 decision in Ingraham v. Wright, held 5-4 that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments did not apply to corporal punishment in schools, and that the 14th Amendment’s due-process clause did not require notice and a hearing before imposing such punishment.

Wearing my school law beat hat in 2008, I wrote about the last time the Supreme Court considered revisiting the legality of corporal punishment. Though the justices had looked closely at an appeal brought by an 18-year-old female charter school student who had been paddled for leaving her school campus, they declined the appeal without comment.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.