Mississippi school district votes to ban corporal punishment, bucking statewide trend

Physical discipline of students is legal in 19 states across the country.

Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images

A Mississippi school district voted last week to ban corporal punishment — big news considering the state has the highest proportion of children experiencing school corporal punishment in the country.

Greenville School District in the Mississippi Delta voted Tuesday to put an end to the practice after a 2016 video showed a high school teacher pulling a special education student by the hair, the Associated Press reported.

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According to a 2016 study published in the Society for Research in Child Development’s Social Policy Report, “Mississippi has the highest proportion of children experiencing school corporal punishment, where 1 in every 14 children is subject to corporal punishment in a single school year.” 

Currently, 19 states allow public schools to use physical discipline on students, and use of the practice is heavily concentrated in the South. Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas top the list of states where corporal discipline is most widespread. 

School district officials who condone corporal punishment typically view it as a preferable alternative to suspensions and detentions, which, they argue, pulls students away from class and ultimately hampers their education.

“Most kids will tell you that they choose the paddling so they don’t miss class,” David Matheson, principal of Robbinsville High School in North Carolina, told NPR last year. The school has a policy to allow children to choose between corporal punishment or in-school suspensions and administrators report that most parents support the practice.

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But studies show that corporal punishment is ineffective and harmful to students. Schools in states that use physical punishment perform worse academically than than those who have declared the practice illegal, according to research aggregated by Human Rights Watch. Evidence shows that students who undergo corporal punishment have lower test scores and reported problems with depression, fear, and anger. Physical punishment also contributes to an overall violent atmosphere, leading students who witness or experience abuse to develop abusive behaviors of their own. Those who undergo repeated abuse are also prone to dropping out of school.

A 2011 incident in Mississippi perhaps best exemplifies this problem. As an eighth grader at Independence High School, Trey Clayton often chose paddling as punishment, telling PBS in 2016 that he did so “because my parents always told me, don’t ever choose suspension … you can’t miss school.” One paddling incident ended with Clayton passing out, later waking up to find that he had broken several teeth and his jaw.

“When I had to go back to the eighth grade at the same school, I just didn’t go to school much. And I failed again, until, finally, I was just like, there’s no sense in me staying, doing this,” he told PBS.

Clayton’s experience is not unique, particularly in rural areas, where paddling is most common. The practice also tends to impact the most vulnerable, disproportionately affecting students with disabilities and students of color.

Students with disabilities are 50 percent more likely to experience physical punishment than students without disabilities in various school districts in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee, the Social Policy Report study found. Although punishing students for symptoms of their disabilities is illegal, physical discipline often occurs as a result of behaviors that stem from a student’s disability, such as symptoms resulting from autism, Tourette syndrome, or obsessive compulsive disorder.

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“It is worth noting that schools do have the legal right to use corporal punishment on students with disabilities; judges have upheld this right, even when the punishment results in a child needing psychiatric hospitalization,” write Elizabeth T. Gershoff and Sarah A. Font, authors of the Social Policy Report study.

Black students account for 38 percent of those who receive physical discipline, despite making up only 22 percent of all students attending schools using corporal punishment. In fact, Black students undergo physical punishment at twice the rate of white students, and the practice overwhelmingly impacts boys.

“We do see corporal punishment as just one piece of the school-to-prison pipeline and the disproportionate disciplining of students of color,” Rhonda Brownstein, legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told Education Week.

Since the Supreme Court declared school corporal punishment to be constitutional in 1977, some state lawmakers have taken it upon themselves to limit or outlaw the practice in its entirety. Earlier this month, a Tennessee state lawmaker introduced a measure to ban the use of corporal punishment on students with disabilities (he introduced a similar bill in 2015 to prohibit physical discipline for all students, but it didn’t make it through the subcommittee).

Former Education Secretary John King released a letter in 2016 urging schools to prohibit the practice. But in the last year, attempts to ban corporal punishment in schools in Louisiana, Kentucky, and Colorado have failed to make it through the legislative process.

Meanwhile, some schools have taken steps to reintroduce the practice. Last week, Three Rivers Independent School District board in Texas voted to allow schools to use paddles on students who commit minor infractions. Andrew Amaro, the Three Rivers Elementary School’s campus behavior coordinator who introduced the idea, told USA Today that his experience informed his decision to push for the policy.

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“I believe it worked,” he said. “It was an immediate response for me. I knew that if I got in trouble with a teacher and I was disrespectful, whatever the infraction was, I knew I was going to get a swat by the principal.”