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Corporal Punishment: Teaching Violence Through Violence

I was recently stunned to discover that corporal punishment in schools is legal in 23 U.S. states, and that 26 percent of Americans believe that elementary school teachers should be allowed to spank their students. Who can explain the reasoning behind those disturbing statistics?

A couple of weeks ago, I received what was to me a disturbing e-mail from an Arkansas parent. The e-mail read, in part, We have corporal punishment in our school. I wouldnt have a problem with it if it was used correctly (as a last resort, with the parents knowledge and participation), but unfortunately, I see it used for kids not being organized, and not having homework and supplies -- things that parents could help the teacher and child straighten out if the parent was made aware of the problem. Instead, parents are left in the dark, and our children receive physical punishment for things that need other methods to take care of the problem. [The children] learn to hate to learn.

Although I was frankly flabbergasted to learn that any educator anywhere in the United States still relies on corporal punishment to control and discipline students, I somehow assumed that this parent was referring to some scholastic aberration -- a military academy, a school run by a strict religious sect, a special program for delinquent students perhaps? Certainly, this mother could not be writing about a 21st century U.S. public school!

Then, last Friday, an ABC news article popped up on my monitor. The headline read Support for Spanking. The article stated that Sixty-five percent of Americans approve of spanking children, a rate that has been steady since 1990. But just 26 percent say grade-school teachers should be allowed to spank kids at school; 72 percent say it shouldn't be permitted, including eight in 10 parents of grade-schoolers. Indeed, even among adults who spank their own child, 67 percent say grade-school teachers should not be permitted to spank children at school.

What was this? Just one-fourth of Americans believe that elementary school teachers should be allowed to hit their students! And why had ABC pollsters even bothered to ask the question? Surely, I thought, spanking is illegal in U.S. schools. Apparently not.

There are no state laws against spanking, the article went on to say, although 27 states have policies against the practice and this year Pennsylvania is debating becoming the 28th. Spanking in schools is currently allowed in 23 states.

Pardon my naivet, but I was shocked to learn that in the year 2002, nearly half the states in the United States allow teachers and/or administrators to physically discipline students. I still wanted to believe, however, that even in those 23 states the permission was unused, consisting perhaps of primitive statutes collecting dust in forgotten historical archives. If not illegal, spanking was certainly abhorrent to educators in all 50 states, I thought. I decided to do some research to find out. This is what I learned:

  • Corporal punishment in public schools is indeed legal in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming.
  • During the 1997-1998 school year (the most recent year for which figures appear to be available), 365,058 students were subjected to corporal punishment in U.S. schools. That number represented 1 percent of the countrys total student population.
  • Corporal punishment is statistically most prevalent in Mississippi schools where, during the 1997-1998 school year, nearly 50,000 students -- 10 percent of the total school population -- were subjected to corporal punishment. During the same year, 40,811 Arkansas students (9.2 percent of students), 45,610 Alabama students (6.3 percent), and 36,477 Tennessee students (4.0 percent) received corporal punishment in school.
  • Although Texas ranks only seventh among the 23 states in terms of the percentage of students subjected to corporal punishment (2.1 percent), in terms of actual numbers, the 81,373 students physically punished there in 1997-98 outstrips Mississippi by more than 30,000 students.
  • Blacks students comprise 17 percent of the U.S. student population, yet blacks are on the receiving end of 37 percent of the physical punishments administered. White students make up 63 percent of the student population and receive 55 percent of the corporal punishments.
  • Schools are the only institutions in the United States in which striking another person is legal. Corporal punishment is not permitted in prisons, mental hospitals, or the military.
  • Every industrialized country in the world except the United States, five Canadian provinces, and one Australian state prohibits corporal punishment in schools.

What are we thinking?

Are we thinking that physical punishment is a learning experience? Are we thinking that physical punishment develops moral character? Are we thinking that physical punishment engenders respect for -- and a desire to live up to the expectations of -- the wielder of the paddle? Are we thinking that physical punishment teaches children to solve problems? Are we thinking that fear of being hit clears childrens minds and allows them to learn better? Are we thinking that children troubled enough to require physical punishment to control their in-school behavior will become less troubled after being hit by an all-powerful adult? Are we thinking that hitting a child is educational? Are we thinking that by hitting children we are behaving as professional educators who are in any way fit to be in charge of the development of young bodies and minds?

These are not rhetorical questions. Twenty three states in their collective wisdom allow corporal punishment in their schools. Can anyone tell me why?