Last month, I wrote of the impressive efforts being made to bring social and emotional learning into Austin schools, where mindfulness and other techniques are helping children manage their emotions more productively. This month, I take a look at something that stands in sharp contrast—the use of corporal punishment, a practice still legal in Texas public schools and in the public schools of almost half of states nation-wide.
Texas defines corporal punishment as “deliberate infliction of physical pain by hitting, paddling, spanking, slapping or any other physical force used as a means of discipline.” School boards can prohibit its use in their districts, and many in Texas do. In public schools where the practice is allowed, parents may individually withhold permission for their children to be physically punished at school. By law, they must do so in writing and renew their written request each year.
While the use of corporal punishment in schools has been steadily diminishing since the 1970s, it remains legal in 22 states. It is most prevalent in Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama, where it potentially affects about 50 percent of students, according to a recent report authored by researchers Elizabeth Gershoff and Sarah Font. Their analysis also disturbingly revealed racial and other disparities in how punishments are carried out.
In the period they reviewed, black boys were the most likely of all children to receive corporal punishment, at 16 percent of those attending a school that used it, followed by all boys at 11 percent. Although at lower rates than boys, all females with disabilities were more likely to be physically punished than their counterparts without disabilities; black girls in this group were punished at higher rates than white girls.
Whether meted out in schools or elsewhere, many parents believe corporal punishment is appropriate. Child Trends, a national nonprofit research group that focuses on the well-being of children, youth and families, reports that a 2014 survey found 76 percent of men and 65 percent of women said that children sometimes need a “good, hard spanking.” Elsewhere, it’s been reported that 80 percent of parents worldwide spank or otherwise physically punish their children.
But Gershoff, who has studied the subject extensively, contends that corporal punishment is harmful to children and should be avoided. In a second study published earlier this year, Gershoff, along with co-author Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, analyzed previously conducted research on thousands of children to reach their conclusions.
“There’s absolutely no evidence that when children experience physical punishment, they have any positive outcomes,” Gershoff says. “The more kids are spanked, the more aggressive they are over time, the more behavior problems they have, the worse their achievement in school,” she adds. The study also found that more mental health problems and negative relations with parents are associated with corporal punishment.
Researchers are not alone in their concerns. US Education Secretary John B. King, Jr. recently issued a statement urging governors and state school officials to eliminate corporal punishment in schools across the country. “Our schools are bound by a sacred trust to safeguard the well-being, safety and extraordinary potential of the children and youth within the communities they serve,” King says in a statement. “No school can be considered safe or supportive if its students are fearful of being physically punished.”
The Austin Independent School District (AISD) expressly prohibits the use of corporal punishment. But even where schools have prohibited corporal punishment, the disparities found by researchers may still be present in more subtle ways. For instance, black children were given in-school or out-of-school suspension at more than twice the rates of white students within AISD in 2013. Rates were also slightly higher for Hispanic students, compared to their proportion of the student population.
Tiffany Young with AISD says parents should report immediately to a child’s principal if they suspect he or she is being hit or otherwise punished inappropriately. They may also report the issue to an area superintendent if they don’t feel comfortable reporting it to the principal, she adds.
Other Central Texas districts may allow corporal punishment, however, and rules that govern local private schools and charter schools may differ as well. If you are not sure and have a concern, contact your child’s school to find out which policies apply. You can also visit ocrdata.ed.gov and click on “School and District Search” to find out how about your school district or school stacks up in a variety of ways, including the use of corporal punishment.
Margaret Nicklas is an Austin-based freelance journalist, writer and mom who covers public affairs, public health and the well-being of children.