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The Striking Outlier: The Persistent, Painful and Problematic Practice of Corporal Punishment in Schools

Authors: This research was conducted in collaboration with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Date Published: June 11, 2019

This report examines only the data (students populations and paddling incidents) from schools where corporal punishment is used. The report relies on data from the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), primarily from the 2013-14 school year. In schools where corporal punishment is practiced, black students and students with disabilities are more likely to be struck than white students and those without disabilities.
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It can still be heard in some American schools: The sound of a wooden paddle striking the backside of a child.

During the 2013–14 school year, more than 600 students were struck in public schools each day in the United States. It’s a practice that is still allowed in thousands of public schools even though it’s generally prohibited
in daycare centers, foster care systems and a host of other settings for children. Proponents of corporal punishment contend it’s necessary in school. They portray it as a tool of last resort for the worst-behaving
students, one that’s necessary to enforce classroom order. It’s a harsh punishment, supporters say, but a judicious one. 


It is indeed harsh but certainly not judicious. In fact, whether a child faces the possibility of corporal punishment in school is — for them — largely a matter of chance, an accident of where they happen to live. And, as this report shows, within schools where it is practiced, the impact falls disproportionately on black children and children with disabilities.


Corporal punishment was still practiced in 11 percent of U.S. school districts (1,467 out of 13,491) during the 2013–14 school year. But within those districts, it occurred in just more than half of the schools (4,294 out of nearly 8,000). Overall, 96 percent of the nation’s 98,176 public schools do not practice corporal punishment, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. While corporal punishment is illegal in a majority of the states, it remains deeply entrenched in the South. Ten Southern states account for more than three quarters
of all corporal punishment in public schools. Just four of those states — Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and
Texas — account for more than 70 percent. Mississippi alone is responsible for almost one-quarter of all corporal punishment.

Because of its methodology, this report provides a clearer picture than previous studies of the use of corporal punishment in schools and the disparities in its application. Earlier studies have included student populations from entire states or entire districts where corporal punishment was practiced, even when it was used in only
a small fraction of the individual schools within those jurisdictions. Corporal punishment rates were, therefore,
skewed downward because of the inclusion of many students who, because of an individual school’s policy or practice, were never subject to corporal punishment.

This report, in contrast, examines only the data (student populations and paddling incidents) from schools where it is used. It relies on data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC),
primarily from the 2013–14 school year. Using this methodology, we found that children face a much higher likelihood of being struck than previous studies have found. Moreover, in such schools where corporal punishment is practiced, black students and students with disabilities are more likely to be struck than white students and those without disabilities.

This report finds that:

• Within the schools that practice corporal punishment, about 5.6 percent of students were struck during the 2013–14 school year. The rates were as high as 9.3 percent (Mississippi), 7.5 percent (Arkansas) and
5.9 percent (Alabama). In 2015–16, 5.3 percent of students were struck in schools that practice corporal punishment.

• Black boys were nearly twice as likely to be struck as white boys (14 percent vs. 7.5 percent) in 2013–14. Black girls were more than three times as likely to be struck as white girls (5.2 percent vs. 1.7 percent). The 2015–16 data show that despite a slight overall decline, the rates are still high, and a racial gap persists between black students and white students. Such racial disparities are troubling, because other research shows
that black students do not misbehave more than white students.

• Nearly half (43.8 percent) of all black girls receiving corporal punishment in schools were in Mississippi in 2013–14 (4,716 black girls). No other state comes close to eclipsing Mississippi as the state with the highest
share of all incidents involving the corporal punishment of black girls.

• In more than half of the schools that practice corporal punishment, students with disabilities were struck at higher rates than those without disabilities in 2013–14. This finding raises troubling concerns about the
disparate treatment of students with disabilities, who are too often punished for behaviors arising from their disability, for which they should receive appropriate supports, not corporal punishment.

Concerns that students of color and students with disabilities are struck more often than other students extend beyond the initial trauma inflicted. Previous research has shown that corporal punishment does not correct a student’s behavior and that it increases the possibility that a student will become entangled in the justice system. In this respect, school-based corporal punishment contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline — the
harsh cycle of punitive policies, practices and procedures that pushes children out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems, often for minor infractions and those that are judged subjectively.

The luck of the draw

Whether a child is subject to corporal punishment for misbehavior depends wholly upon the policies adopted by states and, in many cases, their individual districts and schools. Thirty-one states have banned corporal punishment in schools. In the remaining 19 states, nearly 8,000 schools lie within districts that practice it. Of those schools, however, almost 45 percent don’t practice it. This means that children attending different schools in the same district can have vastly different experiences when it comes to discipline. One school may use evidence-based practices that provide positive, corrective consequences for students and put them back on track. But, at a nearby school, children engaging in the same misbehavior may be struck.

What emerges is the clearest picture yet that corporal punishment disproportionately harms the nation’s most vulnerable students. It’s a practice that destroys students’ trust in educators — trust that’s necessary for strong learning relationships.

It’s a practice researchers have found to be ineffective and unsound for education. And it’s a practice that psychologists have warned is not only harmful to children, but especially harmful to abused children or those who have experienced trauma. Unsurprisingly, the majority of states and more than 100 countries worldwide have decided corporal punishment does not belong in their schools. And even in U.S. school districts that allow corporal punishment, many schools have realized they don’t need it when a range of evidence-based discipline programs is available. Quite simply, there is no need to strike children in school. Recommendations are offered at the end of the report.


In compliance with the UC Open Access Policy, this report has been made available on eScholarship:

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