In 1964, my third-grade teacher relied mainly on an air of motherly authority to maintain control over her classroom of more than 50 8-year-olds. But when pushed, she warned darkly of deploying her spanking machine.
Two years earlier, my first grade teacher showed less restraint. I vividly recall the public, front-of-the-room, over-the-knee spanking of one girl, whose skirt our teacher had first pulled up to expose her underwear. Her infraction is lost to memory, but the fear and shame I felt—for myself, for her, for the teacher—is burned in my mind.
That was nearly 50 years ago. Along with lots of other Americans, I believed that this kind of brutish discipline was a relic of the past.
But it’s not. As recently as the 2006-2007 school year, at least 223,000 students were paddled—legally—by their teachers or principals, the very people whose job it is to keep them safe at school.
The numbers for all kinds of physical punishment might in fact be higher—up to 2 million to 3 million. That is according to congressional testimony by Dr. Donald E. Greydanus, a pediatrician and professor of pediatrics and human development at Michigan State University.
In 2010, 20 states allowed corporal punishment, the intentional application of physical pain as a way to change behavior. It will come as little surprise that the top 10 form a band running from Florida west to Texas and Oklahoma. Sadly, five states—Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama and Georgia—account for three-quarters of all cases.
Worse, there’s a corporal-punishment gap, perhaps related to the achievement gap. As Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) noted in her statement to the congressional committee, young African Americans and students with disabilities are paddled at twice the rate of white students and those in the general student population.
These facts fly in the face of wisdom. As Dr. Greydanus pointed out, studies show that not only is corporal punishment an “ineffective method of discipline,” but it also “has major deleterious effects on the physical and mental health of those on whom it is inflicted.”
Like its near-relative, bullying, corporal punishment affects three parties. The child who is punished suffers a wide range of effects, which can include depression and school avoidance. The teacher who inflicts the injury becomes desensitized to his student’s humanity. And, according to Dr. Greydanus, the “children who witness this type of abuse are robbed of their full learning potential.”
Physical punishment is banned in federal prisons and medical facilities. It’s long past time to extend the same protection to our children.
Those looking for better ways to discipline unruly students can check out this information on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS).
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