How would you feel if a school administrator punished your child with a hand, or even an object? I know I would be devastated. But as a new Social Policy Report published by the Society for Research in Child Development points out, this very thing is happening in 19 states. And sadly, corporal punishment is used disproportionally on boys, kids with disabilities, and African-American children.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, a wince-worthy 160,000 kids were physically punished in schools between 2013 and 2014. As disturbing as this is, here's what is even more deeply unsettling: As the study's lead author, Elizabeth Gershoff, Ph.D., associate professor of human development and family sciences at The University of Texas at Austin, explained to Parents.com, these same acts, if perpetrated by parents, could warrant prosecution. However, schools are exempt from child-abuse laws. Even though "ninety percent of parents who spank don't agree with object use."
Dr. Gershoff and co-author Sarah A. Font of Penn State University looked at nearly 37,000 public schools in all the 4,460 districts in the 19 states where school corporal punishment is legal (Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming) and uncovered some things parents may not know. For instance, kids are being paddled for behavioral infractions big and small; from setting off fireworks in school to not finishing their homework. And sometimes these kids suffer bruises, hematomas, broken bones, and nerve and muscle damage as a result of being paddled.
The study authors also found:
And it's all legal, according to a Supreme Court ruling in 1977, except in the 31 states that have banned it. It's worth noting that not all school districts in the 19 states that allow this form of discipline actually practice it.
In districts where it's allowed, sometimes parents "find out the hard way," says Dr. Gershoff. "As parents, we send our kids off to school assuming they will be safe," she told Parents.com. That's why it is so important to know what your child's school's policy is on corporal punishment. She recommends contacting the principal first to find out if this is a disciplinary method allowed at the public or private school your child attends. You can also check the school's handbook to learn about its discipline policy.
If corporal punishment is permitted, parents can fill out an opt-out form, or put it in writing that they do not want their kids paddled or hit. But as Dr. Gershoff notes, this isn't foolproof. So if you want the policy to change where you live, consider writing to your state representative and asking that the practice be banned at the state level, and/or contact your Congressperson to encourage the passage of a federal law banning corporal punishment in the U.S.
As the study authors note, banning this form of discipline has not been linked to increased juvenile crime rates. This suggests it is possible to find appropriate ways to discipline children in schools that do not cause physical or emotional harm. And don't we owe our kids that?
Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Find her on Facebook where she chronicles her life momming under the influence. Of coffee.