End Corporal Punishment in Schools: Grassroots Efforts Meet A Movement From the Fashion World

I’ve written before how I’m committed to non-violent parenting and use positive discipline with my own child. This is in part because I’ve experienced corporal punishment from my parents while growing up–much as probably 80% of my generation of parents has.

But why is it important to cultivate positive discipline among parents? Because if there is no spanking at home, corporal punishment in the schools becomes starkly inexcusable instead of mildly intolerable.

Even parents who do believe in physically punishing their children at home bristle when strangers–teachers or principals at school–administer this kind of discipline to their children at school.

Now it seems the movement to end corporal punishment in schools is gathering steam. Thirty states disallow corporal punishment in schools; twenty still allow it under the guidelines for “paddling”. I’ve been getting regular updates on the issue from the folks in Tennessee at ForKidSake.org who are affiliated with the Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education group, and are allied with over 107 groups concerned with the medical, social, emotional and psychological well-being of children.

And in an example of converging interests, fashion designer Mark Ecko has adopted the end of corporal punishment as his cause.

This news story highlights the website for “Unlimited Justice” and iPhone app he created to help students report incidences of corporal punishment.

For Kids’ Sake documents the kinds of horrific lapses in judgement and slippery slope for abuse when teachers and principals hit children for misbehaving and are protected by “teacher immunity laws” for doing so. These are just a few recent examples:

“Teacher immunity” as enshrined in federal law (No Child Left Behind, also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) tends to draw a wide circle of protection around teachers and school administrators, shielding them from civil liability as they try to keep their schools safe and orderly. (A fairly thorough summary of laws preventing corporal punishment, as well as permitting it or remaining silent on the issue, can be found here.) When tested recently in a Missouri court, for example, the court upheld as constitutional the Coverdell Teacher Protection Act section of NCLB. In the states where corporal punishment is still allowed, such as Texas or Alabama, state legislatures have taken the additional step of passing laws that specifically limit teacher liability for administering physical punishment to students they deem unruly.

When school districts combine in the face of budget cuts, as in this Shelby County, Tennessee example, clashes over corporal punishment policies can add to the obstacles for its removal.

As recently as 2008, petitioners put the issue of school legitimacy in administering corporal punishment to students before the U.S. Supreme Court. They declined to hear the case, which would’ve addressed rights of an 18-year old relative to the permission given by a guardian for her to be subjected to paddling at school for violating school rules; also at stake was whether students of any age have due process rights upon being subjected to corporal punishment.

Last, but not least, there’s the disturbing issue of which children are disproportionately the ones who receive corporal punishment. According to two reports, one in The Grio and another in The Root, African American boys and girls are most often paddled to make them behave:

“Texas is the leading state and that’s why we’re here,” [activist against corporal punishment Paula] Flowe said. “They report more than 80,000 cases a year. The school superintendent said there’s more, but they don’t want to look bad. Number one is black boys, then black girls, Latinos, Native Americans and children with special needs. Twenty percent are autistic, mentally retarded or physically challenged. That’s just the reported cases, and reporting isn’t mandatory.”

A 2008 joint report by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, entitled “A Violent Education,”found that blacks made up 17 percent of the nationwide student population in the 2006-2007 school year, but nearly 36 percent of those paddled in schools. Black girls were physically punished at more than twice the rate of white girls. Special education students — students with mental or physical disabilities — also suffered disproportionately. About 200,000 students per year receive corporal punishment.

An education journalist for Scholastic notes that of the states receiving Race to the Top funding that also permit children to be beaten as punishment, none were compelled to end those policies in order to be eligible.

NYT Infographic: Corporal Punishment in Schools, Aug 13, 2009

Neurological research showing that beatings elevate stressor hormones in children (pdf), temporarily suppressing cognitive ability, leads many educators to ask, Why are we still hitting? Especially when a clear, consistent, and coherent positive discipline policy can and does work?

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