School-Sponsored Violence Against Children: When Will We End Corporal Punishment?

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School-Sponsored Violence Against Children: When Will We End Corporal Punishment?

Classmates said they were "scared for their lives" as they watched Officer Ben Fields assault an unnamed female student at Spring Valley High in Colombia, South Carolina. (Screenshot via Reginald Seabrooks/Youtube)

The shocking video of an African American high school girl being violently grabbed and slammed to the ground has been seen and shared millions of times over the past few days. Most are sickened by what we see. This incident is sparking a much needed discussion over the use of police to respond to disciplinary issues within a school. Police tend to use force, and students they deal with become criminalized, setting patterns that continue into adulthood.

Unarmed school safety officers can be far more effective, as I saw in my 18 years in the classroom in Oakland. At our middle school of about a thousand students, we had a small team of safety officers, led for many years by Mr. Obee. Mr. Obee was respectful of students, and had a calm and steady presence in the halls. I never saw him or other safety officers initiate the use of force at our school.

There is a related issue that has smoldered under the surface for decades. While all fifty states have laws against intentional cruelty to animals, in 19 states it is legal to paddle students for misbehavior. Recent attention has been drawn to the fact that African American and disabled students are more likely to be suspended or expelled – and this pattern is seen in the use of corporal punishment as well. This report from Sarah Carr shows that African American students are physically punished at higher rates. Disabled students are likewise more likely to be beaten or restrained, and this can cause lasting harm.

The US Supreme Court, in a 1977 decision called Ingraham V Wright, upheld the constitutionality of corporal punishment for school children. This decision was used as the basis to dismiss a 2014 lawsuit brought by a Mississippi student who fainted and fell while being paddled, suffering a broken jaw.

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A Tennessee parent, George Worley, has been speaking out on this issue. He wrote to me:

I’ve been trying to be a voice for children’s rights almost daily for 7 1/2 years!  I can’t focus on much else because I care about kids.  Handcuffed kids is just the tip of the iceberg!  The National Disability Rights Network published a report in 2009, “School is Not Supposed to Hurt” telling of horrific incidents of children restrained – even smothered to death at school.

My 3 children attended schools in an unresponsive paddling district (Houston Co. Schools) Erin, TN and overheard classmates being paddled in hall just outside class then immediately faced humiliation as they returned to their seat.  Our grandson will start kindergarten in a couple of years and we don’t want him hit or traumatized by school employees.  We have asked our local school board to prohibit corporal punishment three times since 2008 and they ignore us because state law allows corporal punishment without parental consent. Most school districts around us banned corporal punishment decades ago and it is prohibited in Nashville Metro Public Schools.

This documentary, The Board of Education,  reveals the disturbing facts around this officially sanctioned abuse.

The entire 32 minute film can be viewed here:

Action on this issue in Congress has been thwarted in the past by politicians like John Kline, who view this as federal overreach, and believe states ought to be allowed to set policy in this area. According to this report by ProPublica, two organizations, the American Association of School Administrators and the National School Boards Association both opposed legislation to halt corporal punishment introduced by Tom Harkin back in 2012.

In his 1995 book, “Profiles in Character,” Jeb Bush suggested that if more children were paddled in school there would be fewer school shootings. Florida, where Bush was governor, is one of the 19 states that allows paddling.

While many schools ask parents to sign forms giving them permission to paddle their children, this is sometimes ignored, and children are paddled anyway, as in this Florida case. The parent in this case was left with no recourse as Florida law protects principals and teachers from lawsuits over such abuse.

This map, created by ProPublica, shows the policies in place in states around the nation.

This month Congresswoman Judy Chu introduced the Children’s Bill of Rights which features 22 principles meant to protect children. Chu said,

The Children’s Bill of Rights solidifies our commitment to all of the children in our nation. It gives a comprehensive framework that ensures children are free of abuse and neglect, have quality education and a healthy environment.

Congressman Alcee Hastings of Florida introduced a bill last May called HR 2268, Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act of 2015. The bill would remove federal education funds from states that continue to allow corporal punishment. If you support such legislation, please contact your representative here. and encourage organizations such as the National School Boards Association and the American Association of School Administrators to support it as well.

While the Spring Valley High school incident has rightly focused attention on the use of police on school campuses, we should also take this opportunity to address other forms of violence routinely inflicted on children.

What do you think? Is it time to get rid of corporal punishment?

Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody spent 24 years working in Oakland schools, 18 of them as a science teacher at a high needs middle school. He is National Board certified, and now leads workshops with teachers focused on Project Based Learning. With education at a crossroads, he invites you to join him in a dialogue on education reform and teaching for change and deep learning. For additional information on Cody's work, visit his Web site, Teachers Lead, and read his blog, Living in Dialogue. You can follow him (@AnthonyCody) on Twitter.

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