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Physical Discipline: Investigating a Teaching Style

Jordan Catapano

When I was growing up, my father often besieged me with stories about how when he was school age, his teachers would slap students on the hands, arms and behinds. He would usually end his tales with, “You’re lucky nowadays, you’re just sent to the office!”

It’s interesting to consider that for many years, teachers were allowed to physically discipline students. What seemed like a somewhat outlandish teaching style was for some time quite the accepted norm.

What is Corporeal Punishment?

The National Coalition for the Abolishing of Corporeal Punishment at Schools (NCACPS) defines corporeal punishment as “Physical pain inflicted on a child as a penalty for disapproved behavior.” This normally includes “hitting, spanking, punching, shaking, paddling, shoving and the use of various objects,” according to the Society for Adolescent Medicine. Normally, teachers have used corporeal punishment as a teaching style to maintain control over their students and discourage wrongful behavior patterns. However, in many cases, this form of discipline can carry over into abuse, leaving marks or injuries on students.

Interestingly, more than 100 nations have prohibited the practice of corporeal punishment. Corporeal punishment is only allowed in outback regions in Australia and in the United States. This lingering of corporeal punishment in our illustrious industrialized nation has some, like the Center for Effective Discipline headquartered in Ohio, wondering why we continue to permit this seemingly barbaric discipline practice in schools.

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Where Corporeal Punishment Stands

There was an attempt in 1977 to have the Supreme Court give a national ruling to prohibit the practice in Ingraham vs. Wright; however, the high court’s decision upheld corporeal punishment as a state decision. This historically has been an area the federal government has been unwilling to intervene in.

Currently, only 29 states have bans on corporeal punishment. Interesting, right? Did you think that it would have been more? New Jersey led the way with the ban, abrogating the practice way back in 1867. But most states made their bans official only in recent decades, with some states like Ohio (2009) and New Mexico (2011) only legitimizing their bans within the last ten years. Other states have special stipulations or procedures regarding corporeal punishment, like Utah which requires Board of Education oversight or written parental approval.

The majority of states permitting the practice are in the South, with the highest frequencies of occurrence coming from Alabama (33,716), Mississippi (38,131), and Texas (49,197). Arizona, on the other hand, which still legally permits corporeal punishment on the books, has a less than 0.1% frequency rate among total students.

Critics against the use of corporeal punishment in schools cite a number of reasons why it is inappropriate and ineffective as a disciplinary tool. Many – like the Global Initiative to End All Corporeal Punishment of Children – claim that applications of corporeal punishment disproportionately targeting boys and African-Americans. Others – like The Civil Rights Data Collection – discovered heavier instances of physical restraint and isolation in students with disabilities, Hispanics, and African-Americans. Generally, many organizations and activists assert that corporeal punishment does more harm than good, in that it inflicts pain and injury upon students, affects them physically as well as emotionally, models ineffective conflict resolution, perpetuates violence, and contributes to poor school cultures and lower achievement outcomes.

Why Corporeal Punishment Persists

As you might tell from the 20 states that still permit corporeal punishment, there are several reasons why it persists. A smaller group of conservative lawmakers – many of whom hail from the South – insist that their constituents prefer to make this decision for themselves. That’s why district-by-district bans (like in North Carolina, where 99 districts passed bans) are more likely to appear than statewide bans in some areas.

Also, many districts and board members consider corporeal punishment as a “tool in the discipline toolbox,” like Carol Ely, who serves as a member on the Board of Education in Marion County, Florida. In addition to suspensions and other forms of discipline, corporeal punishment via paddling is a disciplinary resource for teachers to enforce for a “level two” offense. Teachers may, after receiving parental approval, paddle an elementary student. But, they may also choose not to.

It’s interesting to note that corporeal punishment persists in some American schools, while the rest of the world has abolished the practice. As Americans, we cherish “home rule” and the ability to enforce discipline compliant with our regional culture and perceived values. Although the issue is nuanced and its status today is highly contentious, we continue to engage in the debate to ensure that we are constructing effective disciplinary measures to encourage the best and discourage the worst behaviors in our students.

Do you live in an area that permits corporeal punishment? What are your views on it? Would you administer corporeal punishment if your district or state permitted it?

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and currently serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website ACTWritingTips.com.