Corporal Punishment in K-12 Schools – Top 3 Pros and Cons
Corporal punishment is defined as a “physical punishment” and a “punishment that involves hitting someone.” In K-12 schools, corporal punishment is often spanking, with either a hand or paddle, or striking a student across his/her hand with a ruler or leather strap. More extreme instances, including the use of a chemical spray and Taser, have also been recorded by American schools.
In 2014, 94% of parents with children three to four years old reported that they had spanked their child within the past year, and 76% of men and 65% of women agreed with the statement, “a child sometimes needs a good spanking.” However, a study of the prevalence spanking from 1993 to 2017 found a decrease in the practice from 60% to 39% among parents with 2 to 12 year olds.
27 states and D.C. “expressly prohibit” corporal punishment: Alaska, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, “depending on the state, corporal punishment remains legal because state law either expressly allows corporal punishment in at least some circumstances or does not expressly prohibit it. The following states expressly allow corporal punishment in schools: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming. Some states that expressly allow corporal punishment also expressly prohibit it for students with disabilities, see, e.g., Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Other states do not expressly prohibit corporal punishment in schools, those states are: Colorado (prohibits only for students with disabilities), Connecticut, Kansas, Indiana, Maine, New Hampshire, and South Dakota.”
Over 70% of corporal punishment happens in just four states—Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Texas—with Mississippi alone accounting for almost 25%.
There is no federal ban or law regulating corporal punishment, but the practice is prohibited in the federal Head Start program. In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Ingraham v. Wright found that corporal punishment was not cruel and unusual punishment and is, thus, allowed in schools. No more recent federal court ruling has been made.
On Mar. 24, 2023, Secretary of Education Miguel A. Cardona sent a letter to state leaders saying “if the use of corporal punishment is permitted or practiced in schools and educational settings within your state or district, I urge you to move swiftly toward condemning and eliminating it…. Schools should be safe places where all students and educators interact in positive ways that foster students’ growth, belonging, and dignity—not places that teach or exacerbate violence and fear. Let’s all work together to move away from this harmful practice and to create learning environments that are safe and supportive for all students.” No states appear to have changed their laws since receiving the letter.
According to the newest available data, more than 109,000 students (down from 163,333 in the 2011-2012 school year) were physically punished in more than 4,000 schools in 21 states during the 2013-2014 school year, including some students in states where the practice is banned. Rural, low-income, black, male students were more likely to have experienced corporal punishment. Children with disabilities also experience corporal punishment at higher rates than other students.
Some school districts have very specific rules for the punishment. Central Parish in Louisiana states that three swats with a paddle “approximately 20 inches long, 4 inches wide, and not exceeding ¼ inch in thickness” is the appropriate punishment. However, other districts do not offer guidance. Daryl Scoggin, the superintendent of the Tate County, Mississippi, school district stated: “It’s kind of like, I had it done to me, and so I knew what I needed to do. I guess it’s more that you learn by watching… We don’t practice on dummies or anything like that.”
Internationally, 65 countries ban corporal punishment in all instances, including at home. Those countries include Zambia and Mauritius, both of which most recently passed laws in 2022, and Sweden, which passed the first ban in 1979. Most countries ban corporal punishment in some instances. According to the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, 15 countries do not ban corporal punishment in any instances and 29 countries allow corporal punishment (including caning) as a sentence for minors who have committed crimes.
Should Corporal Punishment Be Used in K-12 Schools?
Corporal punishment is the appropriate discipline for certain children when used in moderation.
Occasional use of corporal punishment for serious behavioral issues is appropriate because time-out or taking away a toy may not work to correct behavior in a particularly willful or rambunctious child. The negative effects of corporal punishment cited by critics are attached to prolonged and excessive use of the punishment.
LaShaun Williams, founder of childcare group Sitter Circle, states, “there are some children who like to push their limits. Those are the children who may require a pop. Knowing your child is the key to nailing down the most effective forms of discipline…. Today’s disrespectful youth have shown what happens when necessary spanking is forgone.”Read More
Corporal punishment sets clear boundaries and motivates children to behave in school.
Children are better able to make decisions about their behavior, exercise self-control, and be accountable for their actions when they understand the penalty they face for misbehaving is comparable to their actions.
Harold Bennet, President and Dean of the Charles H. Mason Theological Seminary, states, “children need to understand boundaries and I think that children need to understand that there should be punishments… in direct proportion to the improper behavior that they might demonstrate.”
Some experts state that corporal punishment prevents children from persisting in their bad behavior and growing up to be criminals.Read More
Corporal punishment is often chosen by students over suspension or detention.
When given the choice, some students frequently choose corporal punishment because it is a quick punishment that doesn’t cause older children to miss class or other activities, or younger children to miss their valued time on the playground. The child’s education is not interrupted and make-up work is not required for missed class instruction.
A former high school senior at Robbinsville High School in North Carolina, stated she chose corporal punishment over in-school suspension when her phone rang in class. Her principal, David Matheson, stated, “Most kids will tell you that they choose the paddling so they don’t miss class.”Read More
Corporal punishment can inflict long-lasting physical and mental harm on students.
Children who have been physically punished are more likely to have problems with aggression and attention.
Studies have shown that frequent use of corporal punishment leads to a higher risk for anxiety, depression, substance abuse, stress, and other mental health concerns. Children who experience corporal punishment are more likely to relate forms of violence with power, and are, therefore, more likely to be a bully or abuse a partner.Read More
Corporal punishment creates an unsafe and violent school environment.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says corporal punishment “may contribute to disruptive and violent student behavior.”
Children who experience corporal punishment are more likely to hit or use other violence against people in order to get their way, which places other children at risk for increased bullying and physical abuse and teachers in potentially violent classrooms.
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry states, “[c]orporal punishment signals to the child that a way to settle interpersonal conflicts is to use physical force and inflict pain. Such children may in turn resort to such behavior themselves.”Read More
Corporal punishment is an inappropriate punishment that harms the education of children.
Corporal punishment has been banned in U.S. prisons and military training, and animals are protected from the same sort of punishment in every state.
Students who experience corporal punishment in kindergarten are more likely to have lower vocabulary scores in fourth grade and lower fifth grade math scores.
According to the National Women’s Law Center, “harsh physical punishments do not improve students’ in-school behavior or academic performance. In fact… schools in states where corporal punishment is used perform worse on national academic assessments than schools in states that prohibit corporal punishment.”Read More
1. Should corporal punishment be used in K-12 schools? Why or why not?
2. Should federal laws about the use of corporal punishment be established? Why or why not?
3. Should corporal punishment be allowed in certain circumstances? Which situations? Why or why not?
1. Evaluate an opinion article from a former educator about the use of corporal punishment.
2. Learn about the laws governing corporal punishment in the United States.
3. Consider the Southern Poverty Law Center and the UCLA Center for Civil Rights Remedies report on corporal punishment inequities.
4. Consider how you felt about the issue before reading this article. After reading the pros and cons on this topic, has your thinking changed? If so, how? List two to three ways. If your thoughts have not changed, list two to three ways your better understanding of the “other side of the issue” now helps you better argue your position.