Everyone is worried—rightfully—about what seems to be a cross-country epidemic of bullying. The problem may be nationwide, but the solution has been left to the 14,000 school districts and the 50 states. Because we all know that bullying in Oregon is a lot different from bullying in Georgia, right?
The result: hundreds, if not thousands, of anti-bullying policies. And, in the 43 states that have passed legislation, the laws differ in all sorts of ways, from prevention to punishment. When it comes to bullying, we’re all against it, but we don’t all agree even on what exactly “it” is.
With that background, the first-ever National Anti-Bullying Summit convened in Washington, D.C. this week. It was long overdue.
J. Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), represented Teaching Tolerance at the summit. He said the assembled experts agreed that effective prevention had to be part of a larger set of policies. “A good school culture and positive disciplinary systems are key,” he said. “Anti-bully programs can’t exist alone.”
But can a positive disciplinary system include corporal punishment? We think the answer is no. When an adult administers a paddling on the buttocks—the most common form of physical punishment in schools—that merely reinforces a child’s belief that violence is appropriate. It also sends the message that intimidation is an acceptable way to treat a weaker person.
Experts at the bullying summit today broadly agreed that corporal punishment is itself a form of bullying. Human Rights Watch documents how the two share similar effects that range from physical injury to depression, anger and academic disengagement.
Our concern about corporal punishment goes beyond its impact on bullying. Overwhelming evidence shows that who you are and where you live determine whether you’re liable to be whupped by a principal. As we’ve pointed out before, school use of corporal punishment is concentrated in just a few southern states. In those states, multiple studies point out that African American or disabled students are the ones most likely to get paddled. Many of these cases involve children with autism, whose “misbehaviors” are actually common to the autism spectrum.
In June, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy introduced the Ending Corporal Punishment In Schools Act. Unfortunately, it has not yet come up for a vote. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights collects data that show clearly the extent of corporal punishment and its disparate impact based on race and disability. But the DOE should do more than collect that data. It should vigorously investigate and issue guidelines that prohibit corporal punishment.
The use of corporal punishment anywhere promotes bullying—even when, ironically, it is used to punish bullies. And the arbitrary application of corporal punishment denies equal access to safe and violence-free education. Its mere existence is at odds with the idea of a positive school climate.