Spare the rod and spoil the child,’ ‘reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic must be taught to the tune of the hickory stick.’ These old folk sayings reflect he pervasiveness of corporal punishment in American education, which exists in many states of the union well into the 21st century. One mother from the southern state of Arkansas wrote a popular educational columnist to note that in her state corporal punishment was commonly used. The mother hastened to add that she “wouldn’t have a problem with it if it was used correctly (as a last resort, with the parents’ knowledge and participation)” but worried it was often used for minor infractions, such as “not having homework and supplies” (Starr 2002). The latter condition might not even be the child’s fault, if the parent could not afford the correct color folder or type of pencil demanded by the assignment. Parents were also uniformed when the punishment took place.
While the columnist was “flabbergasted” that the woman was speaking of a modern public school, this Arkansas mother’s situation was not unique (Starr 2001). Corporal punishment in schools is legal in twenty-one states and is used in a manner described as “frequently in thirteen: “Missouri, Kentucky, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Florida, according to the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education. “The highest percentage of students receiving corporal punishment was in Mississippi, with 7.5% of students. The highest number was in Texas, with 48,197 students” (More than 200,000 kids spanked at school, 2008, CNN.com). Of those students, African-Americans comprise thirty-seven percent of all the students receiving physical punishment, although they make up only seventeen percent of the total school population. In contrast white students make up sixty-three percent of the student population and receive fifty-five percent of the corporal punishments (Starr 2002).
However, despite her arena of expertise the columnist may be forgiven for her surprise that corporal punishment was legal in the public school systems of so many states. The use of corporal punishment is banned against incarcerated inmates in prisons, the military, and against the violent, mentally ill in hospitals.
Almost every industrialized country in the world except the United States, five Canadian provinces, and one Australian state prohibits corporal punishment in the public schools. Yet on the other hand, perhaps these findings should not be so surprising, given that sixty-five percent of Americans support spanking as a means of discipline.
Corporal punishment still remains widely used in most American families. Regarding the data on its effectiveness, in a recent large-scale meta-analysis and literature of eight-eight existing studies by psychologist Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff, the use of corporal punishment was linked to increased child aggression and antisocial behavior. Only positive association with corporal punishment was the increased, immediate compliance on the part of the child while the other strongest association was between corporal punishment and the physical abuse of the child by the parent (Is corporal punishment an effective means of discipline, APA, 2002). However, some argue this association is due to correlation rather than causality. For example, corporal punishment may be more apt to be used by less educated and advantaged parents, but is not the cause of abuse, and the child’s privations may be the cause of the antisocial behavior. Or antisocial children may be more apt to be spanked in the first place. However, many of Gershoff’s studies did control for these social, demographic, and psychological factors. Still, regarding its use in schools, where it is practiced it is justified by many supporters that “teachers may have overcrowded classrooms and lack resources such as counselors to assist with particularly disruptive students or classroom dynamics” and thus it is necessary (More than 200,000 kids spanked at school, 2008, CNN.com).
Little data exists upon issues of race and corporal punishment — is corporal punishment in schools mainly administered by white administrators against black students? Against same-race administrations against same-race students? This dynamic could increase its pejorative institutional effects. Also, questions of race and religion, if certain races or religions are more apt to spank demands further analysis, although most ‘pro-spanking’ groups tend to be evangelical, southern, and Protestant in focus, reflecting the demographic composition, in short, of states where spanking is still tolerated in schools. Of the data that does exist regarding demographics, boys are more apt to receive corporal punishment for the same infractions than girls, and African-American boys are more apt to be spanked than Caucasian females a rate of 16:1 (Gregory 1995, p.1). But there is little data as to exactly how punishment is administered in different schools, anecdotally some involve authority figures: “twisting children’s arms; banging their heads on desks; ramming them up against lockers or walls; and punching, slapping, kicking, and shaking them into submission. Instruments that reportedly have been used to inflict CP include wooden paddles, rubber hoses, leather straps and belts, switches” (Gregory 1995, p.1). Supporters of corporal punishment state they are against its misuse, and these methods or examples of physical punishment for minor infractions should not be used as an argument against the practice entirely. Opponents state that the existence of corporal punishment fosters aggression and hostility in the hearts of helpless students, and the availability of this disciplinary tool invites misuse.
While African-American males are more likely to receive corporal punishment than white males or females, comparative data does not exist in terms of the racial composition of the inflictor of punishment, to note if white administrators are more apt to punish non-white students, if non-white administrators are more apt to punish non-white students, and regarding the racial identities of supporters of corporal punishment in general. For example, are cultures with more harsh disciplinary techniques against children more apt to produce children who are aggressive and respond positively to spanking in schools? Interestingly, while religious preferences for corporal punishment are well-documented, this is not the case for race and/or ethnicity. Further awareness about these characteristics would illuminate the causation/correlation debate, the question as to whether certain regional or ethnic cultures are more supportive of spanking, and questions about bias in administrating corporal punishment in school.
Gregory, James F. (1995). The crime of punishment: Racial and gender disparities in the use of corporal punishment in U.S. public schools. The Journal of Negro Education.
Retrieved February 15, 2009 at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3626/is_199510/ai_n8721467
Is corporal punishment an effective means of discipline? (2002, June 26). American
Psychological Association (APA) Press Release. Retrieved February 15, 2009 at http://www.apa.org/releases/spanking.html
More than 200,000 kids spanked at school. (2008, August 28). CNN.com. Retrieved February 15, 2009 at http://www.cnn.com/2008/U.S./08/20/corporal.punishment/
Starr, Linda (2002). Teaching violence through violence Education World. Retrieved February 15, 2009 at http://www.educationworld.com/a_issues/starr/starr051.shtml
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