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Weekend Read: The painful persistence of corporal punishment

Across the country, numerous public institutions are legally responsible for children every day.

Day care centers, early learning programs and juvenile detention centers are just a few examples of institutions with this duty. States frequently ban the use of practices such as corporal punishment in such institutions. But in 19 states, the most frequented spaces for young people aren’t on that list – schools. And that’s despite these states explicitly banning corporal punishment in many of these other settings.

Proponents of corporal punishment in school contend it’s a last resort for the worst-behaving students, one that’s necessary to enforce classroom order. But our research shows that black boys are twice as likely to be struck by an educator as white boys (14 percent vs. 7.5 percent), and black girls are three times as likely as white girls (5.2 percent vs. 1.7 percent) in schools that practice corporal punishment. These disparities are occurring despite research showing that black students do not misbehave more than white students.  

The disproportionate use of corporal punishment on black students in American schools lays bare a deeply entrenched, problematic practice that’s sanctioned by states, especially in the Deep South. We’ve released a new report that found 10 Southern states account for more than three-quarters of all corporal punishment in public schools. The four states that account for more than 70 percent of all students receiving corporal punishment are Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Texas.

Decades of research finds the practice is extremely harmful to students. Young black children are routinely criminalized – pushed into the school-to-prison pipeline – when it comes to school discipline in the United States. It’s a clear indicator that our education system needs reform that will encourage more effective and safer management of classrooms that prioritizes the safety of all students.

Yet one in every 20 students attending schools that practice corporal punishment were still struck in 2013-14 and 2015-16, according to our report. And in more than half of the schools practicing corporal punishment, students with disabilities were struck at higher rates than those without disabilities.

Every child deserves the opportunity to attend school free from harm and free to learn. The minority of states that still allow corporal punishment in school should join the rest of the country in prohibiting this dangerous and discriminatory practice.

NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson notes in the report’s foreword that this information “should shock our conscience – not only because studies show that students of color do not misbehave any more than their white peers, but because the impact of corporal punishment can be devastating on a student’s ability to learn and succeed.” 

Protecting the rights of all children should be at the heart of the American education system, but until we stop accepting this inequality for black students and students with disabilities, it won’t be.

SPLC's Weekend Reads are a weekly summary of the most important reporting and commentary from around the country on civil rights, economic and racial inequity, and hate and extremism. Sign up to receive Weekend Reads every Saturday morning.

Photo by Tulsa World/Stephen Pingry