The American Academy of Pediatrics recently did something it should not have to do: It renewed its call for U.S. schools to stop using physical punishment as a form of discipline.
Research has shown that physical punishment is ineffective and a harmful practice that increases children’s aggression and disobedience, and it lowers their school performance. Yet 18 states still permit their public school personnel to hit children in the name of discipline.
Physical punishment in schools typically involves an adult hitting a child with a 2-foot-long wooden board, known euphemistically as a “paddle.” When children are hit with this board by school personnel, they feel pain and often experience injuries, including bruises, cuts and welts.
In fact, if a child came to school with those injuries, these same school personnel would be legally obligated to report suspected abuse in the home to state child welfare authorities.
However, when a child comes home from school with such injuries, parents have little recourse because this violence against their child is sanctioned by the state.
Consider this: If a principal were to hit an adult, say a teacher or a parent, with a 2-foot-long board, that person would be charged with assault with a weapon or aggravated assault. School personnel are hitting children with boards that, in any other context, would be considered weapons — and they do so legally.
We recently conducted a national survey to find out whether Americans think physical punishment should be allowed in schools. Of the more than 3,000 U.S. adults we surveyed, 65% agreed that there should be a federal ban on physical punishment in schools; only 18% were opposed (the others were neutral). It is clear that a majority of Americans are ready to get physical punishment out of our schools.
The U.S. Department of Education also is ready.
In March 2023, U.S. Secretary for Education Miguel Cardona called on governors and heads of state education agencies “to move swiftly toward condemning and eliminating” physical punishment from schools. Colorado and Idaho complied, banning physical punishment from public schools in their 2023 legislative sessions to join the 30 other states that had already banned it. And Maryland went a step further by extending its ban on physical punishment to private schools, joining Iowa and New Jersey as the only states that ban physical punishment from both public and private schools.
The schools that continue to use physical punishment are outliers — 91% of public schools reported no physical punishment in the last year of data collected by the U.S. Department of Education. The vast majority of schools have found ways to effectively manage student behavior without hitting them. Legislation is needed to help the last 9% of schools give up a practice that worsens student behavior and actually makes teachers’ jobs harder.
If the remaining states fail to ban this violent practice from schools, a federal law will be necessary. Such a bill has been introduced to Congress this session, the Protecting Our Students in Schools Act of 2023, by Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore. There are already 42 co-sponsors of the House bill. Congress can act to protect children from physical injury and mental harm at the hands of school personnel by passing this bill.
States have already banned physical punishment from settings that care for children, namely child care centers, foster homes and juvenile justice facilities. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, Prevent Child Abuse America and numerous other national and local organizations are asking states to do for schools only what they have already done for other settings — protect children from physical assaults by the adults charged with their care and education. It is time to remove legalized violence from our schools once and for all.
Elizabeth Gershoff is a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in The Hill.