Corporal Punishment in the Schools: The Overlooked ACE

Corporal Punishment in the Schools: The Overlooked ACE

Imagine a student who walked out of class to protest a rash of deadly school shootings being punished with violence.

But that’s exactly what happened to 17-year-old Wylie Greer of Greenbrier, Arkansas, who was paddled in 2018 for leaving class without permission. Greer told reporters he was given a choice between being hit twice with a wooden paddle and in-school suspension; he chose the latter. “I felt if I stood up and took the punishment in an honorable way that it was better than doing what they wanted me to do, which is shut up and go on with our lives,” he told CNN.

Greer added that he felt corporal punishment had no place in schools. “The idea that violence should be used against someone who was protesting violence as a means to discipline them is appalling.”

It may come as a surprise for many Americans to find that school paddlings are still legal in Arkansas, as well as many other states in the South and Midwest. Every other Western country in the world has banned the practice, but as of 2019, physical punishment in the public schools was legal in 18 U.S. states, which allowed school personnel to deliberately inflict pain as a means of discipline from the time children start preschool until they graduate 12th grade. Among private schools, the practice is still legal in 48 states.

Although U.S. military and prison guards cannot (legally) hit soldiers or prisoners, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its 1977  Ingraham v. Wright decision that school corporal punishment is constitutional, allowing states to decide whether to use it. A 2016 study of school corporal punishment in Social Policy Report observed that at least one state specified the paddle be 24 inches long — “and given that elementary school children range in average height from 43 inches at age 5 to 55 inches at age 10, a 2-ft-long paddle can be half as tall as the children being paddled. In any other context, the act of an adult hitting another person with a board of this size (or really, of any size) would be considered assault with a weapon and would be punishable under criminal law.”

Corporal punishment in the schools is not listed as an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) on screens we’re aware of, but on screening tools that include social adversities, it could easily be included in the category of neighborhood violence. To many of us who have witnessed or experienced a school paddling, it’s worth an ACE category of its own. Corporal punishment at school is opposed by virtually all U.S. child advocacy groups, human rights groups, world health organizations, and medical associations such as the AMA and the  American Academy of Pediatrics, yet the message doesn’t seem to be reaching the states that matter. At last count a total of 163,333  students in the U.S. were reported to have been hit by teachers or principals in those states.

Racial disparities abound. A recent study showed that in Alabama and Mississippi, for example, African Americans are 51% more likely to receive corporal punishment, and in a fifth of both state’s districts, they were 500% more likely to be hit.

The depth of the brutality is hard to fathom. When another reporter and I were sent across the country to cover the ramifications of school paddlings for Time Inc. magazines in the late eighties and nineties, hundreds of thousands of children from five to 18 were being whipped, spanked, beaten, and paddled on the buttocks at schools in 40 states across the country for reasons that included getting a bad grade, dropping a pencil or turning around in their seat; in some rarer cases reported in newspapers, students were struck with baseball bats, tied to chairs or stung with electric cattle prods. A former teacher and anti-paddling activist in Houston, Texas, said he doubted many people knew how severe paddlings really were. “I mean, we’ve got teachers in East Texas who shave down baseball bats and swing with both hands,” he told us.

Bruises and contusions from paddlings were sometimes so severe that parents took their children to emergency rooms. Hospital records we gathered from around the country showed that injuries were not always confined to welts and bruises; on some occasions they included broken bones, gashes, sprains and concussions. But it was the damage done to children’s minds and spirits that weighed on us most heavily. Student after student talked about the terror they felt in the presence of teachers and principals; others were haunted by the pain and guilt they felt at hearing other students scream and beg for mercy during the beatings.

To make matters worse, the paddlings were often accompanied by verbal abuse. “The teacher told us, you welfare kids, you little B’s, you’re gonna do battle with Mr. Paddle!” a first-grader told me in a low-income district of Houston. “And the ones they hit so hard are screaming and are crying for their mama.” The director of one youth organization told us “Schools are saying they want to encourage students’ self-confidence, then they undo everything with this violence.”

During our investigation, we talked with several distraught parents of children who were so traumatized after being hit at school that they became severely depressed and even suicidal. Among them was a boy in Galveston, Texas, whose father told us that his son had become despondent after being paddled repeatedly in the first through third grades. “He’s talked about suicide a lot of times, about running in front of a school bus or running onto the freeway to get away from everything,” he said. The parents of a third-grader paddled in Crosby, Texas, told us he had made elaborate plans to shoot himself with the family rifle, but was foiled when he couldn’t unlock the cabinet that held the ammunition.

Another suicidal child was a six-year-old with ADHD in Madison, Tennessee, who tried to hang himself after being paddled more than 15 times for talking, “drawing at the wrong time,” and other infractions. Standing on the rails of a 10-foot circular slide on the school playground, he tied a jump-rope to the top rail, knotted the rope around his neck and jumped. “I was real scared then and trying to scream for help,” he told us. “The rope was smooshing all the air out of me. I could see all the kids underneath me, staring, circling and circling like lions in a cage. My friends were trying to push me back up, and it seemed like it took forever for a teacher to get over to me.” His parents were convinced he didn’t want to die: “It was a cry for help,” his mother said, “so we would finally listen when he talked about school.”

But who is listening now? Reviewing the position statements of several excellent organizations devoted to trauma-informed schools and whole child learning, there is not one reference to corporal punishment of students by teachers and principals. There are exhortations to provide caring, trusting relationships and to not re-traumatize children through expulsions and active shooter drills, but no mention of the practice that traumatizes and re-traumatizes millions of children each year: school paddlings.

What accounts for this silence on the part of so many educators and child advocates? It may be that some are simply unaware the school paddling even still exists; after all, there are large swathes of the country in which a principal hitting a child with a wooden board would be arrested. Or is it that the U.S. Department of Education continues to ignore the issue? A well-known 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Education, “Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline,” included no data on corporal punishment. As observed by Social Policy Review, “corporal punishment was not mentioned a single time…Corporal punishment was also not mentioned in a report released by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Department of Education” — something the authors found surprising, given that the OCR has collected data on corporal punishment in the schools for the last 30 years with the goal of enforcing civil rights in public education.

Teachers, parents and policymakers concerned about ACEs would do well to set their sights on ridding the United States of school paddlings, an unconscionable practice better suited to the Middle Ages than a school in this millennium. Although North Carolina no longer allows school paddlings, this map shows the other states (in red) where physical punishment is still permitted in the public schools. For the sake of our children, this terrible abuse should be ended.

This post was written by Diana Hembree, science writer for the Center for Youth Wellness and a former senior editor at Time Inc. publications.