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SPLC Report: Corporal punishment in school disproportionately affects black students, students with disabilities

Corporal punishment in school may seem like a practice that has long since disappeared from U.S. public schools, but every school day there are students who are punished by being struck by an educator – proof that corporal punishment remains a painful reality in thousands of public schools.

While 31 states have banned corporal punishment in schools – recognizing its harmful effects on students – 19 states still allow its use in a school setting. Even within states that allow the practice in schools, corporal punishment is banned in child care centers, foster care settings and juvenile detention centers. In these 19 states, laws barring the practice in such settings sometimes describe corporal punishment as inappro­priate, abusive and unethical – all the while the practice continues in their public schools.

In all, more than 600 students in public schools were subjected to corporal punishment each day in the United States during the 2013-14 school year. And a new report released today by the Southern Poverty Law Center and The Center for Civil Rights Remedies found that of the schools that practice corporal punishment, black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately impacted.

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), according to the report.

In more than half of the schools practicing corporal punishment, students with disabilities were struck at higher rates than those without disabilities. Overall, the report found that at least one in every 20 children attending schools that practice corporal punishment were struck in 2013-14 and 2015-16.

In 2010, a parent told a Congressional committee about the physical effects of corporal punishment on her daughter. “She had purple bruises – you could see the mark of the paddle across her buttocks,” Linda Pee testified to the U.S. House Subcom­mittee on Healthy Families and Communities. Pee had earlier given her consent to the school to use corporal punishment.

“[I]t never occurred to me she could be injured from it,” she told the committee. “I thought she would be safe in school.”

As the report notes, research-based practices, such as restorative justice, conflict resolution, or mentoring, can help create a positive learning environment and address challenging behaviors more effectively than corporal punishment – and without physical harm.

To ensure success with any of these programs, educators must establish a relationship of trust and care with the students. This type of relationship is difficult, if not impossible, to form when a school uses corporal punishment. It should be clear that the few states that still allow corporal punishment in our schools should join the rest of the country in prohibiting this dan­gerous and discriminatory practice.

Read more about our findings and recommendations here.

-Brittany Barbee is a legal fellow at the SPLC. Cheyenne Blackburn is an SPLC outreach paralegal.

Photo by Tulsa World/Stephen Pingry