Commentary

School discipline needs an overhaul. We can start by banning corporal punishment.

June 28, 2022 12:54 pm
child facing a corner

Louisiana is one of 19 states that still allow corporal punishment in school settings. More than 92,000 children are hit every year at school for infractions as minor as tardiness or running in the hallway. (Canva image)

For generations, Louisiana has refused to end the barbaric practice of hitting kids in schools. That refusal leads to more than 2,600 children being hit every year as a school disciplinary practice.

This year, it felt like the tide might finally turn. A bill to ban the practice was introduced by Rep. Stephanie Hilferty for the second year in a row. When the House voted down the measure by two votes, Rep. Hilferty amended the bill to outlaw corporal punishment unless a parent provides written consent, but even that watered-down version died an anticlimactic death, failing to be considered before the Legislature adjourned earlier this month.

It’s a disappointing outcome, but far from a surprise. The practice of hitting, spanking, paddling, or otherwise inflicting pain upon a child as a form of discipline has proven surprisingly durable despite overwhelming evidence that corporal punishment harms children while doing nothing to improve behavior. Just this year, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Georgia also tried in vain to stop the archaic practice. Reform legislation in states like Texas and Arkansas saw similar defeats in recent years as well.

Striking a child – with anything from a flattened baseball bat to a ruler or a bare hand – is still legal in 19 states, where over 92,000 children are hit every year at school for infractions as minor as tardiness or running in the hallway. One study estimates as many as 20,000 students seek medical attention every year because of bruising, muscle damage, or even broken bones caused by corporal punishment. Another report found that the more frequently corporal punishment is used in a school, the less students improve in math and vocabulary.

The practice erodes students’ trust in teachers and increases their absenteeism and likelihood of dropping out. In Louisiana and the 18 other states that allow corporal punishment in schools, hitting children is banned in virtually every other setting, including juvenile detention centers and day care programs, where corporal punishment is considered “inappropriate, abusive and unethical.”

So why does the practice persist? Corporal punishment is deeply embedded in tradition. More often than not, proponents of the practice refer back to their own upbringings in schools that allowed corporal punishment or argue that “going soft” on discipline explains why so many students are out of control. They argue that corporal punishment is a form of “tough love,” and that the benefits of this archaic approach outweigh the significant physical and psychological harm it causes a child.

But the research definitively shows that is not the case. Not only do the imagined benefits fail to outweigh the harm, but a 2016 survey of 250 studies showed corporal punishment provided no benefits at all. Talking points don’t cut it when kids are being harmed, and when there are evidence-based, non-punitive alternatives.

While hitting a child is perhaps the most glaring form of punitive, exclusionary discipline, it is only one of many and far from the most common. Other examples include restraining or handcuffing children, locking them in seclusion rooms, expelling or suspending them, or even arresting children as young as 5 or 6 years old.

The nation’s most vulnerable students disproportionately carry the burden of these ineffective and traumatizing practices. Black boys are hit at school at twice the rate and Black girls at three times the rate of their White counterparts. Children with disabilities make up 16.5% of those hit in schools—often punished unfairly for behaviors associated with their disabilities. Students with disabilities are also more than twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than students without and comprise a quarter of those who are arrested in schools, despite representing only 12% of the student population nationwide.

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Our nation’s approach to school discipline needs an overhaul. We can start by making it illegal to hit students in classrooms, something we should all be able to agree belongs in the past. At the same time, we need to shift away from our instinct to punish and instead equip educators with the tools to solve problems that cause behavioral issues in the first place.

We have the tools to treat children with empathy and humanity, we just need to decide to use them.

Maile Munson, LICSW, is the director of advocacy for Lives in the Balance, a nonprofit advocating against punitive, exclusionary disciplinary practices – including corporal punishment, restraint, and seclusion.

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Maile Munson
Maile Munson

Maile is director of advocacy for Lives in the Balance. She is a licensed independent clinical social worker with more than 20 years experience supporting young people with emotional and behavioral challenges in a variety of school settings. She is also certified as a provider and trainer in the Collaborative and Proactive Solutions model.

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