Corporal Punishment and Preschoolers: What New Federal Data Show

| Updated: May 11, 2018
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A new trove of federal civil rights data has, for the first time, captured a snapshot of the controversial practice of corporal punishment of preschoolers in the nation's public schools.

Nineteen states permit corporal punishment, and the federal Civil Rights Data Collection has for some time collected information on how often K-12 students are spanked, paddled, swatted, or subjected to other forms of physical discipline in schools. Students ages 3 to 5 who attend public preschool programs were for the first time included in the latest data collection, which is based on the 2015-16 school year.

The number of young children who were physically disciplined is small—nearly 1,500 children were reported, out of a total preschool population of almost 1.6 million, according to an Education Week Research Center analysis.

But "the fact that it's still legal is a problem," said Deborah J. Vagins, currently a member of the leadership staff at the American Association of University Women. Vagins, formerly the senior legislative counsel on civil rights issues for the American Civil Liberties Union, led the organization's efforts to have corporal punishment banned in public schools.

"It's important to note that in some states, students receive greater protection from corporal punishment in juvenile-justice facilities than they do in public schools," Vagins said.

What the Data Show

According to Education Department figures, white children made up about 2 in 5 public-school pre-K students during the 2015-16 school year, but represented more than half of the preschoolers who were spanked or paddled.

Black and Native American students also were subjected to corporal punishment out of proportion to their representation among the nation's preschoolers. While black children accounted for 19 percent of preschoolers, they were 22 percent of those spanked or paddled. And American Indian students were just 1 percent of the preschool population, but made up 9 percent of those subjected to corporal punishment.

By contrast, Latino students made up 29 percent of the preschool population included in this data, but were just 1 in 10 of the students who were identified as being punished physically. Together, children who were Asian-American, Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, or two or more races represented 9 percent of preschoolers, and 5 percent of those punished physically.

The corporal punishment information adds to other preschool suspension and expulsion data that the federal government collects from schools.

As in prior years, the data showed that suspensions were more often given to black children. They made up 46 percent of preschoolers suspended more than once in 2015-16, while making up 19 percent of the overall preschool population.

And preschool punishment overall was heavily tilted towards boys, who make up 54 percent of the preschool population in this report, but more than three-quarters of those who were spanked or paddled, and 81 percent of the preschoolers who were suspended more than once.

However, the data also contain puzzling numbers that cast doubt on some conclusions. For example, of the students identified as being subjected to corporal punishment, more than 1,000 were in just two states: Texas and Oklahoma.

Of the nearly 600 young children who were reported by schools as being expelled, more than 400 were reported by one school district: La Joya, in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Data from that heavily Latino district creates the impression that most preschoolers nationwide who are expelled are Latino.

Marina Abdullah, the 29,000-student district's executive director for student services, said that she doesn't know where that number came from. No preschoolers were expelled in the district, and Texas forbids expelling preschoolers and kindergarten students, she said.

"Thank you so much for bringing that to our attention," Abdullah said. "If we had expelled even one, the state would have been on us." Abdullah thinks the number was generated incorrectly from student data files that the district uses to fill out the data report.

Debra Andersen, the executive director of Smart Start Oklahoma, noted that prekindergarten programs in the state are overseen by the school district and thus exempt from child-care licensing, which forbids corporal punishment. It's likely that those prekindergarten programs are following the discipline practices that are in use for older children in those school districts.

Banning corporal punishment is a hard sell, Andersen said. "It's very culturally instilled for a lot of people."

Expulsion and Suspension

The federal government started reporting data on preschool suspensions and expulsions in 2014, prompting a wave of policy actions around the country to ban or restrict the practice. For example, in 2017, Illinois banned expulsion of students from preschool education and early-childhood programs that are funded by the state.

"When we expel 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds, we are setting them up for a life where they are much more likely to be ill-prepared for elementary school and among those most at risk for school failure," said an editorial backing the legislation that was co-written by Diana Rauner, the president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund. Rauner is married to Bruce Rauner, the Illinois governor.

Many of those policy changes, however, would have been going into effect around the same time the data for the recent report was collected, so any impact was hard to gauge. When preschool discipline numbers were first reported, for the 2011-12 school year, black children were estimated at 18 percent of the preschool population, but 48 percent of those suspended more than once. That's about the same as the proportions in this most recent report.

Banning the Practice

Walter S. Gilliam, the director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University, has studied preschool discipline extensively. In addition to several states banning expulsion and suspension in preschool, he noted that a recent change in Head Start regulations explicitly bans expulsion, as do new regulations on child-care programs that receive funding through the Community Development Block Grant program.

"That's 1.6 million preschoolers who are protected, who were not legally protected two years ago," Gilliam said. "I'd like to think that's having an effect. But there's no way to know."

Kristen Harper, the director of policy development for Child Trends, oversaw the U.S. Department of Education's efforts to promote alternatives to suspension during the Obama administration. The numbers are important to collect, even with some of the challenges in interpreting them, she said.

"You take self-reported administrative data that has a lot of policy churn around it, and people have every reason to put themselves in the best light possible," Harper said.

But one reason it's important to collect information about a wide range of disciplinary practices anyway, Harper said, is to see if schools might be shifting to corporal punishment if other practices, such as suspension or expulsion, are off the table.

And the numbers still have to be only part of one piece of evaluating the full picture of how a school or district disciplines its students.

"Even if that was the best data in the world you still shouldn't look at it alone," she said.

Vol. 37, Issue 31, Pages 1, 20

Published in Print: May 8, 2018, as Pre-K Punishment Under Spotlight In Federal Data
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