Parents across America send their children to public schools with the understanding that school personnel will teach them and keep them safe.
Yet, instead of being protected from harm in their schools, hundreds of thousands of children can be purposely hit by school personnel because they attend schools in states where corporal punishment is legal.
Corporal punishment should have no place in our schools. It is time for a federal law to ban its use, regardless of whether the school is public or private. Corporal punishment simply is ineffective and is harmful to students. We can and must do better for our children.
Dozens of research studies have confirmed that corporal punishment does not promote better behavior in children, nor does it help them do better in school.
There is also another troubling aspect of corporal punishment in our schools, namely who is being subjected to it. In a new study we conducted, we found boys, black children and children with disabilities are much more likely to be corporally punished than girls, non-black children and children without disabilities.
For example, in one-fifth of school districts in Alabama and Mississippi, black children are five times as likely to be subject to corporal punishment as non-black children.
Children with disabilities are at least 50 percent more likely to experience corporal punishment than their peers in a third or more of school districts in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.
The United States is one of only two industrialized countries that still allow corporal punishment in schools. It remains legal in public schools in 19 states and in private schools in 48 states. More than 160,000 children, from preschool through 12th grade, were subjected to corporal punishment in public schools in the 2013-2014 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In some states, it is a common practice, with 85 percent of school districts in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi reporting that they used corporal punishment that year.
Aside from these disparities being in direct violation of three federal laws that prohibit discrimination by race, gender or disability status, these districts are doing a disservice to their children and their communities by using an outdated and ineffective disciplinary practice.
It is true that parents in some districts can “opt out” of corporal punishment. Yet many times, school staffers do not check to see whether such forms are on file, as was the case with a kindergartner in DeSoto, Texas, who made headlines after he was paddled despite his mother having signed an opt out form.
Some administrators and legislators believe that corporal punishment is the only way to ensure that children behave in school, and that if corporal punishment is removed, children will misbehave. But the facts do not support this belief. Data analyzed from the FBI found that juvenile crime does not increase after a state bans school corporal punishment.
Schools throughout the country have found ways to discipline children that do not require hitting them with boards. This is the right approach.
Many schools have successfully implemented programs known as schoolwide positive behavior supports, which have been shown to decrease misbehavior by actively teaching behavioral expectations, rewarding appropriate behavior and implementing nonpunitive consequences. But despite these better methods, corporal punishment persists.
When professionals from a variety of disciplines who work with children and families are united in publicly calling for an end to school corporal punishment in this country — including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of State Departments of Education — it’s obvious that national change is needed.
Corporal punishment was ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1977 at a time when nearly all states allowed it. Now in 2016, a total of 31 states have banned the practice from public schools.
We need to bring that number up to all 50 states and to include private schools. Children deserve more, not less, protection from physical assault than adults. A federal law banning corporal punishment from schools would do just that.
Elizabeth Gershoff is an associate professor of human development and family sciences at The University of Texas at Austin. Sarah A. Font is an assistant professor of sociology at The Pennsylvania State University.