Blog of Rights

An Arcane And Destructive Practice

By Deborah J. Vagins, ACLU Washington Legislative Office at 2:04pm

Yesterday, the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Healthy Families and Communities conducted a hearing seeking to address the problems stemming from corporal punishment in public schools — the first Congressional hearing on this important issue since 1992. The ACLU and Human Rights Watch (HRW) submitted a statement for the record that discussed the ongoing corporal punishment of American public school children and its impact on their educational success.

The witnesses at the hearing included Linda Pee, a parent from Mississippi profiled in the joint ACLU/HRW report A Violent Education, Jana Frieler, the president-elect of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, Wendy Gilbert, a teacher from Alabama, and Dr. Donald Greydanus, a professor of pediatrics. The hearing demonstrated that, that in addition to the infliction of pain and the physical injuries which often result from the use physical punishments, these violent disciplinary methods also impact students' academic achievement and long-term well-being. In fact, a recent study found that in states with high rates of corporal punishment, students have performed worse academically than those in states that prohibit corporal punishment.

Despite the many problems associated with the hitting or paddling of students, corporal punishment is a legal form of school discipline in 20 states. According to data from the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, over 200,000 students received corporal punishment in the 2006–2007 school year, and eight states reported its use against at least 10,000 students during that year. As the ACLU and HRW discussed in our statement, while these statistics are significant, they only reflect data which has been reported to the Department of Education. Moreover, they only include the number of students who are subjected to corporal punishment during the school year, not the total number of times that an individual student has been hit over his or her educational career.

Hitting any student in school is unacceptable, but our research indicates that corporal punishment is applied at disproportionately high rates to African-American students and students with disabilities. According to the Department of Education, while African-Americans make up 17.1 percent of public school students nationwide, they accounted for 35.6 percent of those who were paddled during the 2006–2007 school year. In addition, although students with disabilities constitute 13.7 percent of all public school students, they make up 18.8 percent of those who are subjected to corporal punishment. In another ACLU/HRW report, Impairing Education, we found that these students may be punished for behavior arising out of their disabilities themselves. We also documented cases where families of students with disabilities saw changes in their children's behavior and educational achievement stemming from the use of corporal punishment:

A grandmother of a student who has Asperger's syndrome withdrew him from his Oklahoma school in part because of the hostile environment stemming from frequent use of corporal punishment: "It made him much more introverted. He very much didn't want to go to school...No one's supposed to go to school to be tortured, school is supposed to be fun."

Corporal punishment is a destructive form of discipline that is ineffective in producing educational environments in which students can thrive. Rather than relying on threatening disciplinary tactics, schools and teachers should be encouraged to develop positive behavior supports (PBS), which have proven effective in reducing the need for harsh discipline while supporting a safe and productive learning environment. Currently pending in the House of Representatives, the Positive Behavior for Safe and Effective Schools Act (H.R. 2597) would do just that by helping states and local education agencies create positive learning environments as alternatives for ineffective disciplinary practices.

By prohibiting the use of corporal punishment and helping states to develop safe and effective behavioral practices, this Congress could help to ensure that our nation's children are able to achieve their full educational potential in a supportive learning environment. We commend Rep. Carolyn McCarthy for shining a light on this issue and we hope this hearing will bring Congress closer to federal legislation banning this arcane and destructive form of discipline.

Statistics image