School Climate & Safety

Review of Corporal Punishment Hits Nerve in Memphis

By John Gehring — April 14, 2004 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A decision by the Memphis school board to review the district’s corporal-punishment policy has touched off a debate over the use of physical force to discipline students.

One resolution being studied by a board committee would ban the practice in schools. Another proposal would keep the punishment, but clarify the policy to specifically give parents the right to decide whether they would allow their children to be physically punished.

While many states have banned corporal punishment in schools, Tennessee law allows local districts to draft their own rules on the issue. Several districts in the state, including the Nashville public schools, have done away with the punishment in recent years.

Policy in the 118,000-student Memphis district calls for using corporal punishment only as a last resort. A school administrator must approve the punishment, which typically involves a brief period of paddling, and it must be done in the presence of another school official. But critics say students have been routinely paddled for whispering in class, playing poorly in an athletic event, and other minor matters.

The issue has elicited strong reactions from those who support the use of physical punishment as a way to teach students respect for authority—particularly, they contend, in an urban area where many students lack supervision at home.

Critics counter that an overwhelming body of research shows that corporal punishment is disproportionately administered to black males, harms emotional development, and does not help improve academic performance.

Memphis Superintendent Carol Johnson wrote in a guest column for TheCommercial Appeal newspaper last month that “no issue has evoked more opinion and emotional response recently than the question of corporal punishment in our Memphis City Schools.”

Ms. Johnson, who was not available for an interview, wrote that she hoped the policy would be abolished and that alternative measures could be found to set behavioral goals.

Cultural Issues

A flurry of letters and guest columns followed the superintendent’s commentary. Parents, scholars, and school board members all weighed in with opinions that reveal the cultural, racial, and religious undertones framing the debate.

Wanda Halbert, the member who brought the resolution before the board that would allow parents to decide whether they wanted their children to receive corporal punishment, says the issue touches close to home.

“Having been born and raised in the South, it’s a form of discipline that’s been implemented in our homes for years,” Ms. Halbert said. “By removing the ability to institute corporal punishment, you’re taking away another level of authority from adults. Our children are controlling too much of what happens in the schoolhouse already.”

But school board member Lora Jobe says the time to end corporal punishment has come.

“I’m surprised that in 2004, intelligent people choose not to embrace the research,” she said.

Don’t tell that to John Roberts, an assistant principal at Kingsbury Middle High School. The school, which has 1,800 students in grades 7-12, began paddling students again this year. The reason? Parents were asking for it.

Students also have the option of choosing an alternative punishment. But Mr. Roberts said 90 percent of black students choose paddling, compared with about 70 percent of white students and 50 percent of Hispanics.

“I think it’s part of their culture,” said Mr. Roberts. “They were brought up with it at home.”

Irwin Hyman, a professor of educational psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia and the director of the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives located there, says deeply held religious and cultural beliefs, particularly in the South, explain much of the support for paddling.

In the mid-1970s, Mr. Hyman said, only about two states had banned corporal punishment in schools. Today, the practice is outlawed in 28 states; 22 states still allow for such punishment.

But Hubon “Dutch” Sandridge, a member of the Memphis board of education and a longtime preacher, said he was not convinced by the research against corporal punishment.

Mr. Sandridge, who quoted several Bible verses regarding the proper discipline of children to justify his position in a recent newspaper commentary, said behavior problems in schools would be far worse without corporal punishment.

“Teachers and principals say this is our last line of defense, and if you take away this we’re in trouble,” he said in an interview.

Related Tags:


Classroom Technology Webinar How Pandemic Tech Is (and Is Not) Transforming K-12 Schools
The COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting rise in virtual learning and big investments in digital learning tools— helped educators propel their technology skills to the next level. Teachers have become more adept at using learning management
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Accelerate Learning with Project-Based Learning
Earlier this year, the George Lucas Educational Foundation released four new studies highlighting how project-based learning (PBL) helps accelerate student learning—across age groups, multiple disciplines, and different socio-economic statuses. With this year’s emphasis on unfinished
Content provided by SmartLab Learning
School & District Management Live Online Discussion Principal Overload: How to Manage Anxiety, Stress, and Tough Decisions
According to recent surveys, more than 40 percent of principals are considering leaving their jobs. With the pandemic, running a school building has become even more complicated, and principals' workloads continue to grow. If we

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety From Our Research Center Higher Student Morale Linked to In-Person Instruction, Survey Shows
Educators see student morale rising since last spring, according to a new EdWeek Research Center survey.
4 min read
Second-grade students raise their hands during a math lesson with teacher Carlin Daniels at Pulaski Elementary School in Meriden, Conn., Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.
Second grade students raise their hands during a math lesson in Meriden, Conn., Sept. 30.
Dave Zajac/Record-Journal via AP
School Climate & Safety Law Against 'Disorderly Conduct' in Schools Led to Unfair Student Arrests, Judge Rules
The South Carolina ruling is a model for other states where students are still being arrested for minor incidents, an attorney said.
6 min read
Scales of justice and Gavel on wooden table.
Pattanaphong Khuankaew/iStock
School Climate & Safety A Rise in School Shootings Leads to Renewed Calls for Action
A return to in-person learning means a return to school shootings, advocates warn.
5 min read
Families depart the Mansfield ISD Center For The Performing Arts Center where families were reunited with Timberview High School Students, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021 in Mansfield, Texas. Police in Texas have arrested a student suspected of opening fire during a fight at his Dallas-area high school, leaving four people injured.
Families were reunited Oct. 6 in Mansfield, Texas, after a student opened fire at Timberview High School in Arlington, leaving four people injured. Data show that the start of this school year has been particularly violent compared to previous years.
Tony Gutierrez/AP
School Climate & Safety TikTok Challenge to Slap a Teacher Prompts Urgent Warning
The slapping challenge, which so far has not been widespread, has put educators across the country on alert.
Melissa Gomez, Los Angeles Times
3 min read
The icon for TikTok pictured in New York on Feb. 25, 2020.
The icon for TikTok pictured in New York on Feb. 25, 2020.