American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch
Aug. 11, 2009
It seems like a scene from Oliver Twist a young pupil being beaten by a 300-lb man wielding an inch-thick wooden paddle but according to a new report by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, nearly a quarter of a million children were subjected to corporal punishment in public schools in the U.S. during the 2006-2007 academic year. Based on 202 interviews with parents, students, teachers and administrators, and supplemented with data from the U.S. Department of Education, the report reveals how the spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child philosophy continues to rule thousands of classrooms across America, and how students with disabilities are disproportionately affected by such draconian methods of discipline.
1. What "corporal punishment" means: "Corporal punishment is defined under human-rights law as "any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort." There is no comprehensive definition of corporal punishment under U.S. state or federal law. The ACLU and Human Rights Watch documented cases of corporal punishment including hitting children with a belt, a ruler, a set of rulers taped together or a toy hammer; pinching, slapping or striking very young children in particular; grabbing children around the arm, the neck or elsewhere with enough force to bruise; throwing children to the floor; slamming a child into a wall; dragging children across floors; and bruising or otherwise injuring children in the course of restraint."
2. On its widespread use in classrooms, especially in punishing disabled students: "Corporal punishment is legal under domestic law in 20 states ... Texas paddles the most students in the nation, as well as the most students with disabilities ... The total number of students, with and without disabilities, who were subjected to corporal punishment in the 2006-2007 school year was 223,190. ... Nationwide, students with disabilities receive corporal punishment at disproportionately high rates. In Tennessee, for example, students with disabilities are paddled at more than twice the rate of the general student population. ... Students with autism are particularly likely to be punished for behaviors common to their condition, stemming from difficulties with appropriate social behavior. ... Anna M., whose son with autism was physically punished repeatedly when he was seven years old, noted, "The teacher felt he was doing some stuff on purpose. If you met him, you wouldn't know he was autistic straight away. People thought we were making an excuse for him.' "
3. On why corporal punishment is still condoned: "Educators, who face the difficult task of maintaining order in the classroom, may resort to corporal punishment because it is quick to administer, or because the school lacks resources and training for alternative methods of discipline. One teacher pointed out that corporal punishment can be considered 'cost-effective. It's free, basically. You don't have to be organized. All you need is a paddle.' Logistical or financial obstacles may prevent teachers from using other methods of discipline. One 18-year-old student who was critical of the use of corporal punishment in his rural school district stated that 'we couldn't have after school detention. There was no busing. Kids who got detention would have to find another way home.' "
4. On the aftermath: "The Society for Adolescent Medicine has documented serious medical consequences resulting from corporal punishment, including severe muscle injury, extensive blood-clotting (hematomas), whiplash damage and hemorrhaging. ... Corporal punishment led to deterioration in family life, as parents were forced to withdraw children from school, resort to homeschooling and give up jobs. ... Rose C.'s son was unable to tell her that he was repeatedly punished in school, but she learned of some of the abuse after watching a security video. She said, 'I don't trust my own eyes anymore.' "
As the report notes, corporal punishment is banned in most juvenile correction facilities in the U.S., and yet it continues in public schools. The legal paradox can be traced to a 1977 Supreme Court ruling that found the Eighth Amendment only protects convicted criminals from cruel and unusual punishment not students confined to a classroom. In its plea to convince federal and state lawmakers to impose a national ban on the practice, the authors point out yet another paradox, using the words of a special-ed teacher in Mississippi: "I see these children who get in fights and then get paddled. So you're supposed to teach them not to hit by hitting them?"
The Verdict: Read