Corporal Punishment in Southern Schools:
Good News, Bad News, and News That’s Pretty Ugly
Students who attend school in the rural communities and small towns of five Southern states suffer the lion’s share of all corporal punishment that takes place in the nation’s public schools; and it is in these small towns and rural communities where corporal punishment must be vigorously attacked.
How many kids get paddled in the public schools each year? About 127,000, according to data recently released by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) for the 2008-2009 school year.
And that’s the good news. In 1976, educators beat than more than one and a half million students (Center for Effective Discipline, 2010). Over the years, the number of paddlings has decreased as state after state has banned corporal punishment in the schools. Today, only 19 states still permit educators to hit students.
But not all the news about corporal punishment in schools is good. Looking at OCR data, data collected by state departments of education, and reports issued by various children’s rights organizations, we can see that the paddle is still a favorite instrument of discipline in some American schools—particularly schools in the rural South (Goodson & Fossey, 2012; Phillips & Fossey, 2011). In fact, when we examine corporal punishment data from a variety of sources, a picture emerges that is partly good, partly bad, and partly pretty ugly.
GOOD NEWS: CORPORAL PUNISHMENT IN AMERICAN SCHOOLS IS ON A STEEP DECLINE
First, the good news. Thirty-one states have joined Canada and Western Europe by abolishing corporal punishment in the schools. Nineteen states still allow the practice, but nine of these states have virtually abandoned the paddle.
Six non-Southern states—Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Idaho, Indiana, and Wyoming—still allow educators to administer corporal punishment, but the paddle is seldom used. According to data collected by the Office for Civil Rights, these states each recorded less than 1,000 paddling incidents for 2009-2010. Thus, these six states are on the verge of eliminating corporal punishment in the schools due to the humane school-discipline policies that prevail in those states.
In addition, three Southern states that still allow corporal punishment—Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina– have reduced the number of paddlings dramatically. In Florida, where the state department of education keeps good records on corporal punishment in the schools, corporal punishment incidents declined from 24,000 in 1991 to less than 3,000 in 2012 (Florida Department of Education, 2013). That’s a pretty good record for a state with a total enrollment of more than 2.6 million students.
In South Carolina, which has 81 school districts, only 11 administered corporal punishment during a recent school year (Long, 2011). And these 11 districts paddled a total of less than 1,000 students. That’s a pretty good record as well.
Finally, North Carolina, where a children’s rights organization has been keeping track of corporal punishment in the schools, 90 percent of the districts now ban the practice. According to recent data collected by Action for Children North Carolina (2013), only 404 students were paddled during the 2011-2012 school year; and more than half of those incidents occurred in just one school district–Robeson County. Congratulations, North Carolina!
And there’s more good news. Although the laws in 13 Southern states still permit teachers and principals to beat students, all the major cities of the South have stopped hitting kids. Thus, parents who enroll their children in the schools of Dallas, Houston, Little Rock, Miami, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, or Jackson, Mississippi can be assured that school officials will not strike their sons and daughters with a paddle or a board.
BAD NEWS: OCR DATA MAY NOT BE ACCURATE
Now for some bad news. For years, researchers and policy makers have relied on data collected by the Office for Civil Rights to analyze trends in corporal punishment. Unfortunately, that data appears to have underreported the number of students who are being beaten by educators—at least for some states. For example, OCR reported 29,975 incidents of corporal punishment in Mississippi during the 2009-2010 school year. Data collected by the Mississippi Department of Education reported a much higher figure: 46,587. Likewise, OCR recorded 13,135 corporal punishment incidents in Georgia for the 2009-2010 school year. The Georgia Department of State recorded a dramatically higher number: 28,532. And OCR’s figures for Florida show 2510 paddlings for the 2009-2010 school year. The Florida Department of Education published a higher number for the same year: 3661.
The trend that OCR has reported over the years is surely correct—the number of paddling incidents is going down. But apparently, the number of kids who are being beaten is significantly higher than OCR’s data have shown.
UGLY NEWS: SOME RURAL DISTRICTS IN THE SOUTH ARE USING THE PADDLE MORE FREQUENTLY
And now for the ugly news. According to data collected by state agencies or children’s rights organizations, corporal punishment is actually going up in some school districts—particularly districts in rural Georgia and Mississippi.
Let’s begin with Mississippi, where educators beat more children than in any other state. Records released by the Mississippi Department of Education in response to an open records request revealed that Mississippi educators in 99 districts paddled kids 39,000 times during the 2011-2012 school year (Brown, 2013). Southern Echo (2011), a Mississippi civil rights organization, analyzed corporal punishment data for the 2009-2010 school year and the 2010-2011 school year and found that the number of corporal punishment incidents actually increased in 33 districts by a total of 4862 beatings. According to Southern Echo, one rural school district with a total school population of about 1300 students used the paddle 1594 times during the 2010-2011 school year. That’s right–the district’s paddling incidents exceeded the number of students!
And a similar trend has been documented in Georgia. An analysis of corporal punishment reports produced by the Georgia Department of Education shows that corporal punishment has not declined at all in Georgia schools between the years of 2005 and 2012. Georgia DOE recorded slightly less than 20,000 paddlings for 2005. In 2009, paddling incidents spiked upward to more than 28,000. And in 2012, Georgia reported 20,061 corporal punishment incidents, slightly more than the number of kids paddled seven years earlier.
Moreover, looking at Georgia data at the school district level, it is evident that some rural Georgia school districts are paddling a substantial percentage of their students each year. In fact, in the 2011-2012 school year, 15 high schools reported paddling at least 10 percent of their students; and one Georgia high school—Turner County High—reported paddling 167 of its 361 students—an astonishing 42 percent of its entire school population! (Georgia Department of Education, 2012).
CONCLUSION: CORPORAL PUNISHMENT IS LARGELY CONFINED TO RURAL AND SMALL-TOWN DISTRICTS IN A FEW SOUTHERN STATES
All this good, bad and ugly news can be summarized in a few words. Across the United States, most school districts have abolished corporal punishment. It has been completely eliminated in 31 states and major cities of the South. And in a few Southern states, local school boards have almost wiped out corporal punishment; not many kids get paddled in North Carolina, South Carolina, or Florida.
Education policy makers need to see corporal punishment as a major problem in just five states: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas, where 75 percent of all school paddlingoccur. And even in these five states, corporal punishment is not a problem in the urban schools. As we have said, kids are not beaten in the larger cities of the South.
In short, students who attend school in the rural communities and small towns of five Southern states suffer the lion’s share of all corporal punishment that takes place in the nation’s public schools; and it is in these small towns and rural communities where corporal punishment must be vigorously attacked.
Obviously, cultural and socioeconomic factors play a role in a school district’s decision to beat children with paddles and boards. National data, for example, show that Americans in the South are about 20 percent more likely than those in the Northeast or West to favor spanking. Those with a high school education or less are 11 percent more likely than Americans holding a bachelor’s degree or higher to do so (UC-Berkeley, 2012). Attitudes about corporal punishment are also connected to religion. As of 2012, national data indicate that Protestants are about 20 percent more likely than Catholics to favor spanking (UC Berkeley, 2012). This correlation can also be seen by looking at the demographics of corporal punishment in Louisiana. Of the state’s 70 districts, only 17 had banned corporal punishment in 2010 (Louisiana Department of Education, 2011); and all these districts are clustered in the southern part of Louisiana, where Catholics make up a majority of the population.
But regardless of cultural and socioeconomic explanations, corporal punishment must be stopped in the public schools—all public schools. Although urban school boards all over the South have risen to the challenge and banned corporal punishment in their schools, rural and small-town school boards are unlikely to follow suit. Unfortunately, the only effective way to protect rural Southern children from being beaten in their schools is for Congress to pass federal legislation that cuts off federal funding to any school district where educators beat their students with boards and paddles.