Corporal Punishment in Schools Is Biased Against Black Kids

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Nineteen states still allow teachers to hit their students, even though it doesn’t improve behavior.

By Nathan Collins

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(Photo: Scott Akerman/Flickr)

In the old days, if a kid misbehaved in school, he or she was liable to get whacked with a rod. In fact, it’s still legal to do so in 19 states, mostly in the South—but boys and black children are more likely to get paddled, spanked, and slapped, according to a new report.

“In any other context, the act of an adult hitting another person with a [paddle] would be considered assault with a weapon and would be punishable under criminal law,” developmental psychologist Elizabeth Gershoff and sociologist Sarah Font write in Social Policy Report.

Corporal punishment has declined considerably since the 1970s, when states began banning the practice in public schools. But that trend stalled in the mid-1990s; since then, only four additional states barred schools from physically punishing students, Gershoff and Font write. The states that still allow the practice tend to have more children per capita, higher rates of childhood poverty and child mortality, lower graduation rates, and less education spending per student. But little has been known about how often school districts in those states actually use physical punishment.

In half the school districts in Alabama and Mississippi, black children are 51 percent more likely to be hit than white kids.

To find out, Gershoff and Font turned to data from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which periodically collects data on suspensions, expulsions, and, fortunately, corporal punishment. The researchers focused on the 2011–12 school year in the 19 states that still allow physical punishment, a list that includes almost all Southern states but also Idaho, Arizona, Indiana, and a few others.

Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas lead the way in terms of both the fraction of school districts that allow corporal punishment—in Mississippi, 57 percent of districts allow it—and the fraction of students actually spanked, slapped, paddled, and so on. In Mississippi, 7 percent of students were punished physically in the 2011 to 2012 school year, compared to 4 percent in Arkansas and Alabama.

More alarming are the racial and gender disparities in physical punishment. While black children are somewhat less likely to attend schools that use corporal punishment, they are also more likely to receive physical punishment when they misbehave. In half the school districts in Alabama and Mississippi, for example, black children are 51 percent more likely to be hit than white kids. In many districts, the disparity is even worse. Similar statements are true for both genders—that is, boys are more likely to be hit than girls—as well as disability status. Though kids with disabilities are less likely to get physical punishment in some school districts, there are many where the opposite is true.

Those numbers are especially disconcerting, Gershoff and Font argue, because spanking and the like simply don’t get kids to behave better in the long term—indeed, physical punishment can backfire.

“The clear disparities in [corporal punishment’s] use according to children’s race, gender, and disability status, and the concerns raised about corporal punishment from research, professional organizations, human rights advocates, and the American public, together call into question the utility and equity of the practice of corporal punishment in U.S. schools,” Gershoff and Font write. “It is likely time for the remaining states that allow school corporal punishment to reconsider its use and to join the majority of U.S. states and countries around the world that have banned corporal punishment from schools.”

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