OPINION: New civil rights data shows some schools still regularly beat students; these harsh punishments must stop

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As a former public-school teacher, I know that my students sometimes acted out when they didn’t receive the additional educational supports they needed. Too often they then faced a choice: Get your licks or go home.

 “Licks” meant an assistant principal beat their backsides with a paddle. “Go home” meant suspension. Those who chose the former would come back to class dejected, disengaged and depressed.

Many people may assume that what I saw is an outlier, but the latest Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) shows that at least 19,395 students experienced corporal punishment during the 2020-21 school year. Every time the CRDC data is released, I am reminded that corporal punishment continues in our schools today, and I am convinced it can be put to an end tomorrow.

To make this change, advocates must demand that their education leaders end this inhumane practice.

Corporal punishment has been banned in a majority of states since the mid 1990s. Nevertheless, during the 2017-18 school year, the CRDC reported, 69,492 students received corporal punishment, on top of 92,479 students in 2015-16. The most recent number is much lower mainly because in-person instruction and data reporting were disrupted during the pandemic.

Corporal punishment remains expressly legal in 16 states. Banning the practice in just 10 of those states, including the one I taught in, Alabama, along with Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas, would reduce the number of schools using corporal punishment by over 99 percent. Despite the small number of cases in the remaining six states where it is legal — Arizona, Idaho, Kentucky, South Carolina, North Carolina and Wyoming — it is still important to ban corporal punishment there to prevent individual schools from continuing the practice.

Additionally, explicitly prohibiting corporal punishment in states that have not yet done so (Connecticut, Kansas, Indiana, Maine, New Hampshire, and South Dakota) would protect future generations.

Related: State-sanctioned violence: Inside one of the thousands of schools that still paddles students

Corporal punishment needs to end because there is no evidence that retaining it decreases misbehavior. In other words, in the states that allow it, corporal punishment is not helping students control their behavior.

Instead, corporal punishment is associated with unintended negative consequences. These include higher rates of mental health problems, more negative parent-child relationships, lower cognitive ability, lower academic achievement, lower self-esteem and higher risk for physical abuse.

While practicing corporal punishment has never made sense, it makes even less sense now.

Ending corporal punishment is also a civil rights issue: It is disproportionately used against Black students, students with disabilities and male students. News reports have highlighted that Black students receive physical punishment at twice the rate of white students nationwide; research shows that educators’ perceptions of student behavior are based on the students’ race — rather than the actual behavior — and that these perceptions contribute to the disproportionate rates in school discipline.

While practicing corporal punishment has never made sense, it makes even less sense now that millions of students have not returned or are continuing to miss school since pandemic-based disruptions.

While states revisit their discipline policies, they should also reduce the “go home” exclusionary discipline practices (suspensions and expulsions), which can undermine children’s attachment to school. Such harsh punishments increase the chances of students dropping out and feed the school-to-prison pipeline. In addition to those punishments increasing the number of school days students miss, research shows that exclusionary discipline can decrease students’ likelihood of accumulating course credits, reduce their likelihood of graduating and lower their chances of earning a postsecondary credential.

Related: Preventing suspensions: Tackle discipline problems with empathy first

In my experience observing its impacts, corporal punishment has a similar distancing effect on students as suspensions and expulsions — making school feel like a place where they do not belong.

Schools still need to address misbehavior, of course, but there are better ways to do this. They can replace corporal punishment with evidence-based practices that help create safe and inclusive learning environments for all students. Such practices — including advisory systems, in which students meet regularly with a staff member about academic challenges, and “looping,” in which students have the same teacher for multiple years — build positive school-student relationships. These positive relationships can help prevent physical violence and bullying.

Restorative practices, also backed by research, typically foster dialogue in “circles” or “conferences” in which educators help students listen to each other and to teachers in order to resolve conflict and build community. For me, this often meant chatting with students in a hallway about why they acted out, giving them a chance to share their side of the story, regroup and refocus on school.

Recent research shows that investing in student supports, including social and emotional learning and mental health, is a better way to make schools truly safe, along with professional development for teachers and school staff. States should act quickly to make these alternatives more widely available and make schools less like prisons and more like everywhere else.

Corporal punishment is prohibited in almost every facet of life in the U.S. except schools. It is banned in military training centers, child care centers and juvenile detention facilities, and cannot be carried out as a sentence for a juvenile crime. The vast majority of children (76 percent) across the globe are protected by law from corporal punishment. Let’s use this current round of CRDC data to spur action to give our students better choices than the one my students faced.

Stephen Kostyo is an Impact Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. Before working in education policy, Kostyo taught middle and high school math and science — and was recognized as a high school Teacher of the Year by his peers in 2015.

This story about corporal punishment was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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