“The dominant narrative about corporal punishment has vacillated between discussions of the importance of infusing this form of punishment as a means to amend actions and redirect behaviors. From the words of the academic who speaks to the inherent benefits as well as problems associated with corporal punishment to the age-old wisdom of the community or family member who extols the axiom “spare the rod and spoil the child”.
As Black scholars who have succeeded in spite of educational inequities that existed when we were students and still exist now, we are acutely aware of injustices in school settings from personal experiences as former P-12 students and current Black scholars working to also advocate for family members, friends, and those who seek our guidance and assistance. We recognize that their experiences as African-Americans mirror our own from earlier decades.
The most recent report on corporal punishment ‘hit’ a sore spot for us – literally and figuratively; personally and professionally. The Southern Poverty Law Center report revealed and reiterated what we already knew: Corporal punishment disproportionately affects Black students. Herein, we share thoughts and experiences with an unequivocal agreement that we oppose corporal punishment in school settings in principle, practice, and implementation; our aversion increases when racial prejudice exists. Before doing so, we share highlights from the report.
Corporal punishment, within an education setting, is generally defined as an educator intentionally inflicting pain on a student as a punishment to modify behavior. The Civil Rights Data Collection defines it as “paddling, spanking, or other forms of physical punishment imposed on a child.” (Also see https://ocrdata.ed.gov ).
- 19 states allow corporal punishment. In these states, educators in public schools are allowed to do what employees in many prisons, juvenile detention facilities, daycare and early learning centers can’t do by law — strike another person as punishment.
- Corporal punishment is deeply entrenched in the South. Four states – Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Texas – account for more than 70 percent of all students receiving corporal punishment in our nation’s public schools.
- In the 2013-14 school year, Black girls were more than three times as likely to be struck as White girls (5.2 percent vs.1.7 percent) and Black boys were almost twice as likely to be struck as White boys (14 percent vs. 7.5 percent).
- Students of color are struck more often than other students; the impact extends beyond the initial trauma inflicted. These disparities are concerning because studies examining school discipline have demonstrated that Black students do not misbehave more often than other students, but are punished more harshly for the same misbehavior.
- Previous research has shown that corporal punishment does not correct a student’s behavior and that it increases the possibility that a student will become entangled in the justice system. Negative consequences include: physical harm; emotional harm; embarrassment; increased bullying; absenteeism. School-based corporal punishment contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline — the harsh cycle of punitive policies, practices and procedures that pushes children out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems, often for minor infractions and those that are judged subjectively.
Donna’s Experience with Corporal Punishment
The report took me back to elementary school in Cleveland, Ohio. I was a 5th grader seeking peer acceptance and decided to challenge the Black male substitute teacher. He was rather large – tall and bulky. When he’d turn his back to the class, I’d say something to make classmates laugh. He’d turn around, demanding to know who made the comments; no one ratted on me. Eventually, he was able to identify my voice. I was taken to the office and told that I’d receive three hits by him. I was horrified due to his size, strength, and the wooden paddle. Would it break? Would wood chips injure me? Would he accidently hit my back and paralyze me? Who would be watching? Would I face more peer pressure? Why is a man allowed to hit a girl? Would he inappropriately touch me? This felt so invasive. I cried for my mother and begged for him to stop the impending pain. These questions are as fresh today as they were in the early 1970s. The report on corporal punishment is another reminder of the myriad of inequities in education for Black students, especially boys, who are: (a) underrepresented in gifted and talented education and Advanced Placement classes; (b) overrepresented in school suspensions and expulsion; and (c) overrepresented in special education (i.e., emotional and behavioral disorders, intellectual disability, learning disabilities, developmental delay, and ADHD.
We have dedicated our careers to interrupting these racialized academic injustices. A great deal of controversy exists regarding how caregivers should or should not be able to physically discipline their children. When speaking with college students on spanking, we have experienced extremes — White students tend to have a strong aversive reaction to spanking; Black students tend to be less reactionary and more receptive to spanking as a viable disciplinary option. Debates abound regarding the difference(s) between ‘spanking’ and ‘beating’. This is often a class topic that we prefer to avoid; Black and White students shut down with serious disagreement grounded in polemic views and different experiences. More work is needed to clarify spanking versus beating. More work is needed on racial and ethnic differences in disciplinary methods, and differences by income. Too often, the ‘norm’ is how upper income White families discipline their children. Economic and colorblind/cultureblind research and views render Black families as abusive; this is problematic. Several reports blankedly oppose caregivers spanking their children. Yet 19 states have the authority to spank students. This is hypocritical. If any one has the right to spank children, it is their parents and primary caregivers.
Alternatives to Corporal Punishment
As the Southern Poverty Law Center report notes, research-based practices, such as restorative justice, conflict resolution, and mentoring, can create positive learning environments and address challenging behaviors more effectively than corporal punishment – without physical and emotional harm amd trauma. Administrators, teachers, counselors, social workers, and other professionals must collaborate to strategize on the most effective and individualized means of disciplining Black and other students of color. Decision makers must be racially and ethnically diverse, and committed to disrupting prejudice and discrimination; this includes taking on the status quo. At minimal, we recommend:
- Hiring and involving culturally competent educators, especially counselors;
- Ongoing professional development, with presenters being racially and ethnically diverse;
- Yearly evaluation disaggregated by race, gender, and income relative to all forms of discipline used in school setting;
- Strong family-school partnerships in which families of color are affirmed and valued; and
- Workshops with students of color on self-regulation, coping with negative peer pressures, dealing with social and academic injustices, and more.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s report is a serious warning and reminder that race-based prejudice and discrimination persist in school settings, with the most negative consequences faced by Black boys and girls. As with suspension and expulsion, corporal punishment fuels the school-to-prison pipeline. We find it antithetical and hypocritical that educators (in 19 states) are allowed to physically discipline students, but parents/families are admonished and sometimes punished for doing so in almost all instances. More culture-based attention is necessary, which means that Black families, the most affected group, must have a seat at the decision-making table.
Dr. Donna Y. Ford is the Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair and Professor in the Department of Special Education and Department of Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt University.
Dr. Fred A. Bonner II is an Endowed Professor and the Executive Director of the Minority Achievement Creativity and High Ability (MACH-III) Center at Prairie View A&M University.
Dr. James L. Moore III is the Education and Human Ecology Distinguished Professor of Urban Education; Executive Director for the Todd Anthony Bell National Resource Center on the African American Male and Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity at The Ohio State University.