School Climate & Safety

Corporal Punishment Persists in U.S. Schools

October 22, 2013 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 8 min read
George Tomyn, the superintendent of schools in Marion County, Fla., stands in front of Eighth Street Elementary in Ocala. Mr. Tomyn opposed his school board's recent decision to reinstate paddling.
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Corrected: The photo caption in an earlier version of this story misstated Superintendent George Tomyn’s position on corporal punishment. He does not support paddling in schools.

Three years ago, school officials in Marion County, Fla., banned corporal punishment, but this school year, students returned to class to find the discipline practice was once again firmly in place.

Marion County’s back and forth on school spanking illustrates the persistence of corporal punishment in the nation’s schools as a discipline technique for use on wayward students. Even as an increasing number of districts and states abolish the practice, corporal punishment remains a legal form of discipline in 19 states, most of them in the South, according to the Center for Effective Discipline, a nonprofit based in Columbus, Ohio, that provides educational information on corporal punishment and alternatives to its use. That’s a decrease from 2004, when 22 states permitted the practice.

No federal policy exists on corporal punishment in schools. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it’s an issue left to the states. In the 1977 case Ingraham v. Wright, students argued that Florida’s corporal punishment policy violated their rights under the Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment, and their 14th Amendment rights to “procedural due process.” The high court upheld Florida’ s policy, reasoning that the student was provided ample due process, and found the Eighth Amendment inapplicable, since it was intended to protect convicted criminals.

Almost 40 years later, Ingram‘s legacy lingers. Numbers collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights and released in March 2008 showed that 223,190 students were physically punished in American schools in 2006, the most recent year available. This estimate was based on the department’s survey of 60,000 schools.

The data also revealed that the punishment was disproportionately meted out for African-American and male students. While the student population covered by the survey was 17.1 percent African-American, 35.6 percent of the students paddled in 2006 were from that racial group. Boys accounted for 78.3 percent of the students paddled.

The switch back to corporal punishment in the 42,000-student Marion County district grew out of the school board’s annual review of the student-discipline code.

“This administration did not recommend [it be reinstated],” said George D. Tomyn, the superintendent of the suburban central Florida district. “I was supportive of the code not permitting corporal punishment. My personal preference was to not paddle here in Marion County.”

A District Conflicted

But board member Carol Ely had a different opinion.

Having spent 34 years as an educator in the Marion County schools, the last 14 as an elementary school principal, Ms. Ely found the disciplinary method to be effective at her schools.

So when the board reviewed the code of conduct this past spring, she acted to have corporal punishment reinstated as an option. It passed with a 3-2 vote.

Discipline at School

223,190 schoolchildren were subjected to physical punishment in U.S. schools in the 2005-06 school year (latest available data).

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCES: Center for Effective Discipline; U.S. Department of Education

“Definitely some board members thought that this was what their constituents wanted. So they supported it,” said Mr. Tomyn.

The code now allows corporal punishment, administered with a paddle, to be used, though only at the elementary level and only for a “level two” offense, such as hitting or hurting another child or other aggressive behavior like throwing a desk.

Parents also can opt their children out of the punishment and are called before it is administered.

Ms. Ely said she voted to reinstate the policy for several reasons, including a desire to have an alternative to out-of-school suspension.

“When students receive out-of-school suspension, they miss out on instruction time, and the teacher is not obligated in any way to help that student catch up,” she said. “In elementary school, that’s like a vacation. That’s not a punishment.”

And for those students who don’t have parents at home during the school day, “they’re left on the street without parents and no one to care for them. We said we wanted corporal punishment reinstated so we have another tool.”

Mr. Tomyn, though, doesn’t find his toolbox lacking without corporal punishment.

Prior to his election as superintendent, Mr. Tomyn was an assistant principal in the district—a role in which he paddled students.

“Our three options then were paddling, suspension, or expulsion,” he said. “We paddled way too many students and we suspended and expelled way too many students.”

But according to Mr. Tomyn, other, more effective options are available now, such as counseling and an in-school suspension program.

The superintendent has asked that principals who want to paddle as a form of discipline discuss it with him first. As of yet, no principals have approached him, he said.

District by District

Nationwide, New Mexico in 2011 became the most recent state to ban the practice.

Tara C. Ford, the founder and legal director of Pegasus Legal Services for Children, in Albuquerque, who was instrumental in getting New Mexico’s legislature to prohibit corporal punishment, said that in getting the legislation passed, “one of the things that was important was the recognition that families should decide what kind of discipline their children get, particularly around physical discipline.”

“We can hold [education] professionals to higher standards in terms of choosing behavioral supports for kids that are positive and don’t resort to physical punishment,” she added.

But passing legislation of that sort isn’t easy. At present, no other state bans are on the horizon, according to Deborah D. Sendek, the program director of the Center for Effective Discipline.

“Conservative legislatures tend to like home rule,” explained Ms. Sendek. “They think if one of their districts needs to use it, who are they to interfere?”

While no other states appear to be working on a ban, districts seem to be continuing to eradicate the practice.

Action for Children North Carolina, a child-advocacy organization based in Raleigh, has worked within that state to remove the policy, district by district. Currently, school boards in 99 districts across the state have banned paddling.

Eradicating the Practice

The effort has led to a noticeable decline in the use of corporal punishment within the state. North Carolina schools used corporal punishment 891 times during the 2010-11 school year, according to Action for Children North Carolina. By the following school year, that number was down to 404.

Before the Shelby County, Tenn., school system merged with neighboring Memphis earlier this year, the county still allowed corporal punishment. The city schools had banned the practice. After looking at a variety of data and studies on corporal punishment’s use and its effects, local officials agreed that it was not a discipline method they would use under the merger.

“The prevailing research was that it was detrimental to the student,” said Natalie J. McKinney, the director of policy and legislation for the merged Shelby County district.

But in some areas of the country, parents and teachers still want corporal punishment as an option.

According to Ms. Sendek, the use of corporal punishment is most prevalent in small, rural communities. Those smaller settings prove more problematic, in Ms. Sendek’s view, because many times students have no other nearby schooling options and community pressure can become an issue if a parent chooses to challenge the practice.

“Everybody knows everybody,” she said. “If you have a community that believes highly in corporal punishment, it’s a difficult situation.”

When the issue was being debated in the New Mexico legislature, Ms. Ford said, “I think there were certainly folks who thought, ‘This was used on me as a child, and I turned out fine.’ But we are really trying to help people understand that there are a whole lot of different kids entering the public school system with whole different issues. To assume that they aren’t going to be harmed by corporal punishment is a huge mistake.”

In Marion County, Superintendent Tomyn concurred: “The whole education process has evolved. It’s much more scientific than it used to be. Now we can prove what works.”

Since the initial corporal punishment ban there, the district has worked on instituting discipline techniques that have been shown to teach and reinforce students’ positive behaviors.

Alternative Strategies

The district also offers a program called Positive Alternatives to School Suspension to cut down on out-of-school suspensions. Students can go to one of four sites in the district where they receive and work on their schoolwork for full credit, under the supervision of a certified teacher. They also receive some behavioral support, through lessons developed by a behavior specialist or through a computer-based individualized behavior program called Alternative Behavior Educator.

Gary Smallridge, the principal of Marion Oaks Elementary, has been a principal in the district both before and after the corporal punishment ban (and subsequent reinstatement). While he used corporal punishment in his schools before the ban, he said he likes the new approaches better. “It’s used more by parents than corporal punishment ever was,” he said. “Corporal punishment was just something that worked for a few kids.”

According to Mark Vianello, the executive director of student services for Marion County, the number of office discipline referrals has gone down over the past four years, as has the number of one-to-five-day suspensions. The number of six-to-10-day suspensions has remained fairly consistent, though expulsions have gone up.

“But overall, the trends look positive,” said Mr. Vianello. “I think the things we’re doing create alternatives and an environment where corporal punishment isn’t needed to change behavior. There are other more effective ways than to paddle students.”

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 09, 2013 edition of Education Week as Paddling Persists in U.S. Schools

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