By: Gillian Grant

Earlier this year, a startling video that depicted a Hendry County, Florida school principal repeatedly paddling a six-year-old student was released to a local news station by the student’s mother. An investigation by the local police department and the State Attorney’s Office concluded that no crime had been committed by the principal because the student’s mother had consented to the punishment. The memo prepared by the Deputy Chief Assistant State Attorney noted that “a parent has a right to use corporal punishment to discipline their children, and similarly has the right to consent that others do so on their behalf.” However, the mother of the student disputes that she ever gave consent and expressed that she did not intervene out of fear of being arrested. This result may seem shocking, but it is one of many instances of school staff escaping significant consequences for their use of corporal punishment on students. Indeed, corporal punishment in schools is perfectly legal in 19 states. While school staff in Hendry County are expressly prohibited from using corporal punishment, Florida law does allow teachers and administrators to use corporal punishment on students without prior parental consent. Other states require parents to opt-out of corporal punishment for their children if they do not want it used. States’ definitions may vary slightly but corporal punishment generally means “the deliberate infliction of physical pain . . . used as a means of discipline.”   

Legal Background and Status

The decision to permit or ban corporal punishment in schools has long been left to the states. New Jersey banned corporal punishment in schools in 1867—over a century before any other state would do so. Only three other states had followed New Jersey’s example by 1977 when the constitutionality of allowing corporal punishment in schools was addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Ingraham v. Wright, parents sued a Florida school after the principal paddled their son so severely that he required medical attention; the parents alleged that the paddling constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” and violated their son’s Eighth Amendment rights. The Court ultimately held that the Eighth Amendment does not apply to corporal punishment in schools. Since the Ingraham decision, 29 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have banned corporal punishment in schools. In states which still permit corporal punishment, some individual counties and school districts ban the practice. Four of the 19 states still permitting corporal punishment in school—Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Tennessee—prohibit school staff from using corporal punishment on students with disabilities, although two still allow it with parental consent. Only New Jersey and Iowa ban corporal punishment in both public and private schools. Globally, corporal punishment in schools is prohibited in 128 countries, including Canada, Mexico, and most of Europe, South America, and Asia.

Implementation and Impact

Use of corporal punishment in schools has declined steadily over the past few decades as more states and school districts ban the practice. However, nearly 70,000 public school students still received corporal punishment in the 2017-2018 school year. Of those students, over 75% live and attend school in one of just five states—Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, or Texas. School staff in these states do not mete out corporal punishment equally. As with other forms of school discipline, Black students are physically punished at a much higher rate than white students. While only 15% of public-school students are Black, Black students make up over 37% of students receiving corporal punishment. Black boys are almost twice as likely to experience corporal punishment as white boys and Black girls experience corporal punishment three times as often as white girls. These disparities occur even in states where Black children are less likely to attend a school that uses corporal punishment than white children. Results remain consistent after controlling for the severity and regularity of misbehavior, indicating that school staff are singling out Black children as being particularly deserving of corporal punishment.

The adverse impacts of corporal punishment are varied but can include: increased aggression and future criminality; mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders; decreased cognitive ability and educational attainment; and, of course, physical harm. Given these well-documented effects, the racial disparity in the use of corporal punishment is especially pernicious. It indicates not only current biases against Black students, but also the continuation of systemic racist violence against Black Americans. The states with the highest rates of corporal punishment against students are clustered in the South, an area with a “distinct history of racialized violence for social control purposes,”[1] and one study found that counties that had experienced a greater number of historical lynchings had a higher rate of use of corporal punishment in schools, especially against Black students[2]. It is easy to see why one Southern Poverty Law Center attorney called corporal punishment in schools “a vestige of slavery.”

Looking Forward

It is long past time for the United States to ban corporal punishment in schools. In recent years, several states have attempted to ban the practice, but have largely proven unsuccessful. In fact, it has been over a decade since a state has successfully banned corporal punishment in schools. Federal attempts have not fared much better, with bills such as the Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act of 2015, the Ending PUSHOUT Act of 2019, and the Protecting our Students in Schools Act of 2020 all dying in committee. Earlier this year, the Protecting our Students in Schools Act, which would prohibit corporal punishment in any school receiving federal funding, was reintroduced into Congress. The Act is currently still in committee and is estimated to have only a 3% chance of being enacted.

[1] Geoff Ward, Nick Petersen, Aaron Kupchik & James Pratt, Historic Lynching and Corporal Punishment in Contemporary Southern Schools, 68 Social Problems 41, 44 (2021).

[2] Id. at 59

Gillian is a 2L at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Her social justice interests include juvenile justice, education, and issues impacting the LGBTQ+ community. In her free time, she enjoys playing video games, cooking, and volunteering with animal rescue groups.