When then-8th grader Trey Clayton entered the Independence High School assistant principal’s office for a paddling in 2011, everyone—school officials, his mom, even Trey himself—thought it was a preferable alternative to being suspended.
“I’m not going to lie, I was in a lot of trouble during school,” Clayton said. “Every time, they gave me the option to get a paddling or get sent home, and I took the paddling.”
But that March, the decision to take paddling over suspension would lead to weeks out of school, years of court battles—and ultimately Clayton leaving school entirely.
Advocates of physical discipline often point to it as an effective means of getting students in line without missing school time from suspensions. But new research not only questions the effectiveness of corporal punishment like spanking and paddling, but suggests it might make it more difficult for students to behave well in the future.
“It’s been part of these schools for decades, and the teachers and administrators are sure it works,” said Elizabeth T. Gershoff, an associate professor and corporal punishment researcher at the University of Texas at Austin. “But everything we know about how children process being hit by adults goes against it being effective.”
In a 2016 study analyzing 50 years of research on 160,000 children, Gershoff and colleagues at the University of Michigan found the more children are spanked, even with an open hand, the more likely they are to defy adults and show more anti-social behavior, aggression, mental-health disorders, and lower academic achievement over time. Children struck with implements, such as paddles, showed even worse effects.
“The relationship between spanking and negative outcomes was the same at all ages,” Gershoff said. “They’re less well behaved, ... they don’t do as well in school. Spanking had the opposite effects that people want it to have.”
A 2010 study in the journal Neuroimage also found that adolescents who had regular paddling over a three-year period showed less grey matter in the area of the brain associated with self-control and problem solving.
“The more we hit kids for their misbehavior, the more we may be reducing their neurological ability to actually control their behavior,” said Victor Vieth, the founder and senior director of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center, which was created by hospitals to reduce corporal punishment.
Clayton had received “licks” with the school’s wooden paddle before, for misbehaviors like falling asleep in class or being tardy—though he wryly noted that the beatings didn’t give him much pause: “I would go in, get a paddling, come back, go about my day.”
But studies have also found it’s easy for corporal punishment to get out of hand, as it did for Clayton that day near the end of 8th grade, his first year in that high school. Clayton went to the office on March 10, 2011 to be paddled for “mouthing off” to a teacher and a librarian. This time, however, court documents show that shortly after getting three strikes, Clayton fainted as he left the office, breaking his jaw and opening a two-inch gash in his chin when he hit the floor. “When I went to pick him up, my son was spitting teeth into the trash can,” Trey’s mother, Dana Hamilton, said.
Clayton and his mom launched a three-year lawsuit against the district as a result of the incident, alleging school officials used excessive force and disproportionately targeted boys for punishment. Another Independence High student, William Cody Childress, was already fighting a separate suit based on a 2009 paddling.
Both students lost: Federal and state case law overwhelmingly defer to school officials’ judgment with regard to whether corporal punishment is excessive, even if students sustain injuries over several days or require hospitalization. In a footnote to Clayton’s case, U.S. District Court Judge Michael P. Mills noted that, while the boy had no legal grounds for compensation from the school, “if defendants agree that plaintiff suffered these serious injuries as a result of his paddling, they might reasonably regard themselves as being morally obligated to pay him some damages in compensation.”
Even when adults are trained and use clear procedures for corporal punishment, it’s easy for such situations to escalate, Vieth said. “That’s one of the main reasons doctors are concerned about this practice,” he said.
Clayton missed weeks of class while his jaw was wired shut. He missed the end-of-semester tests and was not allowed to make them up, ultimately failing 8th grade. As the lawsuit continued, Clayton became more disengaged from school; he transferred to another school, then later dropped out.
When the school called Clayton’s mother over that last incident, she approved his punishment of three strikes—though it may not have mattered if she had protested. Mississippi, like several other corporal punishment states, allows parents to “opt out,” but the requests don’t carry the force of law.
“At the time when I OK’d it, I was all for corporal punishment,” Hamilton said. “I’m totally against it now. If the teachers and principals are not trained properly, anything can happen to a child.”
In the aftermath of the lawsuits, Tate County briefly suspended its use of corporal punishment, but has since brought it back. Daryl Scoggin, who became the superintendent after both the ban and reinstatement, said he gives his principals broad discretion to paddle, but also urges them not to turn to it “as a first option.”
“If you make [corporal punishment] the first option, any other option seems like it’s no big deal,” he said. Scoggin also said repeated paddlings, as Clayton experienced, are less likely in Tate County now.
“I like to give kids the opportunity to self discipline and reason through it first. ... If I’ve administered corporal punishment two or three times over a period of time and it doesn’t seem to be effective, then I’m not going to keep kicking a dead horse,” he said. “That’s the message I try to give to all my principals: If you’ve paddled a child two or three times and it doesn’t seem to be altering their behavior, then we need to move onto something else.”
Clayton, now 19, said he hopes to earn a GED and go to college to become a nurse or a diesel mechanic. It will be years before his daughter Evelyn, 1, and her 2-year-old sister start school, but Clayton has decided one thing already: They will attend no school that allows corporal punishment.
Editor’s note: The paddle that Trey Clayton is holding in the accompanying video is his own. He said it resembles the one used on him in 2011, but the school’s paddle did not have holes in it.
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A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2016 edition of Education Week as 8th Grade Paddling Takes Long-Lasting Toll on Miss. Man