In 19 states across the country, corporal punishment in schools is still legal. Sadly, in many states, children are better protected against physical discipline in detention facilities than they are in their own classrooms. That fact is a startling reminder that for the many children subjected to corporal punishment or the threat of it every day, school does not feel like a safe place.
Most Americans agree that corporal punishment in our schools is unacceptable. A recent poll indicates that only 23 percent of Americans approve of teachers using corporal punishment on our children. And yet, according to the latest available data from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, over 200,000 students are the victims of this practice every year.
Sadly, these numbers do not even tell the whole story. They only reflect data that has been reported to the Department of Education, which some school districts fail to do. In addition, these statistics 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. In the next few months, the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education, as part of its new Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) effort, is expected to release important new data on school discipline issues. And although we will get a better and updated snapshot of school climate data, unfortunately, we understand that it will not indicate the number of incidents of corporal punishment.
No child should be subjected to corporal punishment in school, but what's even worse is that corporal punishment is being disproportionately applied against African American students and students with disabilities. For example, while African Americans made up 21.7 percent of public school students in states that allow corporal punishment, they accounted for 35.6 percent of those who were paddled during the 2006-2007 school year.
The ACLU and Human Rights Watch interviewed families, teachers and students across the country who discussed the devastating effect of corporal punishment. One teacher in a rural Mississippi school described how African American students were punished more severely, in part because there was a belief that there was less risk of visible bruising:
I've heard this said at my school and at other schools: "This child should get less whips, it'll leave marks." Students that are dark skinned, it takes more to let their skin be bruised.
Aside from the infliction of pain and injury that often results, corporal punishment violates students' human dignity and right to personal physical integrity, both of which are guaranteed under international human rights law. Evidence also suggests that these violent disciplinary methods impact students' academic achievement and long-term well-being. In order to address these acts of violence in our schools, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) introduced "The Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act." This bill would end the practice of school personnel striking or beating students in public schools and private schools that serve students who receive federal services.
The measure will also help provide the safe environment all students need to achieve academic success, and it will give educators new tools to improve school climate by encouraging the use of school-wide positive behavior supports — a process proven to reduce school discipline referrals and improve academic outcomes.
The ACLU thanks Rep. McCarthy for her important leadership on this issue and we hope you will urge your Representative to support H.R. 3027.
UPDATE: This post was updated to reflect the fact that incident data for corporal punishment will not be part of the Department of Education upcoming data collection release.