U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona on Friday called on schools to stop using corporal punishment, citing the practice’s long-term effect on children’s physical and mental health, particularly for boys, students in special education programs, and Black students.
While the use of corporal punishment—physical discipline like spanking or paddling—may sound archaic, the practice is still allowed in 23 states, either because laws explicitly allow it, or because there aren’t any laws on the books banning it by name.
Federal Education Department research from the 2017-18 school year shows nearly public school 70,000 students in 21 states and the District of Columbia received corporal punishment, though the use is likely underreported.
In a letter to governors, chief state school officers, and district leaders on Friday, Cardona urged districts and states to “move swiftly toward condemning and eliminating” physical punishment for students.
“Schools should be safe places where all students and educators interact in positive ways that foster students’ growth, belonging, and dignity—not places that teach or exacerbate violence and fear,” Cardona wrote.
His plea comes as districts work to manage an increase in students’ mental health needs after pandemic-related school closures in 2020 and 2021, and two days after more than 100 organizations called on federal, state, and local lawmakers to ban corporal punishment.
In his letter, Cardona cited research that shows the practice can lead to serious injury and is associated with higher rates of aggression, mental health problems like anxiety and personality disorders, and increased alcohol and drug use. And, for the youngest students, exposure to corporal punishment could lead to lower academic achievement and social skills, Cardona wrote.
At its most basic level, seeing adults use physical punishment at school can give the impression that violence is an acceptable way to solve problems and could lead to a higher likelihood of domestic violence later in life, Cardona wrote.
Data from the 2017-18 school year, the most recent data available, showed boys represented 81 percent of all students who experienced corporal punishment, and Black students were two times more likely than their white peers to be subjected to the practice. Despite making up about 13 percent of student enrollment nationwide, students with disabilities accounted for nearly 17 percent of students who received corporal punishment.
Three-quarters of students who received corporal punishment attended schools in just four Southern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas, according to the data.
An increase in behavioral needs
By the 2017-18 school year, the use of corporal punishment was decreasing. In 2013-14, more than 106,000 instances were reported, compared with the 70,000 in 2017-18, according to data from the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights.
Without more recent data, it’s impossible to say whether schools have used this type of discipline more or less since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many schools were closed to in-person instruction during the pandemic. But districts have reported an uptick in student behavioral issues in some surveys. An EdWeek Research Center Survey in 2022 found that nearly half of school and district leaders said they received more threats of violence than in 2019, and two-thirds teachers, principals, and district leaders said children were misbehaving more.
The American Academy of Pediatrics declared youth mental health a national emergency in October 2021, followed shortly after by the U.S. Surgeon General.
Even if it is allowed by law, many districts have chosen to ban corporal punishment locally. In other cases, educators choose not to use physical punishment, even if it is allowed.
But some districts have made moves in recent years to loosen rules around physical punishment.
A school board in Missouri last summer voted to allow staff to use a paddle to hit students on the buttocks, an act that had been discontinued two decades earlier.
The move prompted fierce backlash and reignited debates about whether corporal punishment should be allowed in schools at all.
The district at the time said the decision was made based on feedback from parents, and noted families had to opt their child in before they would receive such punishment.
More organizations call to end corporal punishment
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has for decades condemned the use of corporal punishment.
The organization instead recommends other methods of behavior management in schools, like positive behavior supports.
Cardona reiterated that point in his letter on Friday, and said federal resources are available to help implement and sustain non-violent strategies, like the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments and the National Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety.
Past education secretaries, including John B. King Jr. and Arne Duncan during the Obama administration, have also condemnedand called for an end to schools’ use of corporal punishment.
The Education Trust, an education nonprofit, along with more than 100 other organizations, on Wednesday penned a letter to federal, state, and local lawmakers, urging them to take action to prohibit the use of physical punishment in schools.
The groups called on the federal government to pass a law that would prohibit the use of corporal punishment in any school that receives federal funding, and urged states that allow the practice to ban it from all schools.
Additionally, states need to take action to explicitly ban corporal punishment in private schools, the groups said.
“Allowing the practice of corporal punishment to continue in our nation’s classrooms is a colossal failure of leadership,” the letter said.