Skip navigation links

May 7, 2024

How corporal punishment is used in U.S. schools — and how to stop it

Nearly 70,000 American schoolchildren were physically disciplined in school settings in 2018, according to MSU research.

Moreover, the researchers found physical punishment — which includes spanking, kicking, paddling and other physical acts — is disproportionately applied to Black, Latinx, and Native American students and those with disabilities compared to their white counterparts. 

“We urge policymakers and education leaders to prohibit the use of corporal punishment in schools immediately,” said Tasmin Dhaliwal, an assistant professor at the MSU College of Education and the lead author of the research. “This practice shockingly continues today, despite overwhelming evidence that its use is harmful to children.”  

MSU scholars led the research. Top row: Assistant Professors Tasmin Dhaliwal and Jerome Graham. Bottom row: Doctoral students Yi-Chih Chiang and Andrew S. Johnson.
MSU scholars led the research. Top row: Assistant Professors Tasmin Dhaliwal and Jerome Graham. Bottom row: Doctoral students Yi-Chih Chiang and Andrew S. Johnson.

The research’s co-authors include Assistant Professor Jerome Graham and doctoral students Yi-Chich Chiang, K-12 Educational Administration, and Andrew S. Johnson, Education Policy. Their work was published in the Educational Evaluation and Educational Policy journal. 

The research examined 2017-18 academic year data from 15 states that do not prohibit corporal punishment in their state codes and that report using the practices: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. The researchers examined data including education codes, administrative regulations, guidance documents and data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection and Common Core of Data

In the words of one researcher, what they found was “shocking” and “egregious.”  

“We compared the ratio of corporal punishment use to the student population,” said Johnson. “We found how many times more likely Black students or students with disabilities or other demographics were more often published than their peers. The findings were stark.” 

Black students in all states examined in the study were, on average, more than 2.5 times as likely to be corporally punished as their white peers. Researchers found that elementary, rural and traditional public schools had the largest share of their students corporally punished. 

The power of language

The researchers examined language and found areas that may support why the practice has continued and how the purported need for corporal punishment has been legitimized. 

“The students were rarely referred to as children” in school/district-wide documents, said co-author Jerome Graham. The documents used other ways of referring to children to make the practice appear or feel more palatable, such as calling the children ‘delinquents’ or ‘disruptive individuals.’ They aren’t [referenced in the codes as] students, minors or children. They are described as delinquents. These types of characterizations of students fail to humanize individuals who (mis)behave and to recognize their status as young children.”   

The authors argue that this type of language is problematic because it can inform practice, and practice can inform language, starting a vicious cycle of justified harm.   

Moreover, the researchers uncovered how policies incorporated protections — but not for students receiving corporal punishment.  

“The vast majority of protections outlined in state codes are for people administering the punishment,” Graham added.

Students, parents and caregivers have little sway over adjusting how or if these policies are enacted in schools. The researchers found the legal framework often did not require schools to notify parents before or after corporal punishment. Few states mandated an opt-out process, wherein parents could prohibit its use for their children. In some cases where there were opt-out processes, the process was burdensome. In Georgia, for example, caregivers must bring a note from a medical doctor indicating corporal punishment would disturb the child’s development.  

“We found few ways for students to argue for themselves,” Chiang said. “Often, the only way to challenge the practice was to sue the school.” 

Historical usage

The authors also situate the administration of corporal punishment in its socio-historical context.  

According to the researchers, corporal punishment was commonly used in U.S. schools in the 18th and 19th centuries, to “bring order.”

Since the U.S. school system excluded non-white students, white students were the first to experience corporal punishment in schools. Corporal punishment was normalized through since-debunked theories of human development and racial hierarchy that reasoned that children, specifically children of color, were more responsive to physical sensation than reason. Some early critics opposed its practice on white students because they feared it “might socialize them to ‘develop the character or temper of a slave.'”  

In the 1970s, the practice was still legally permitted in 44 states. Since then, its legal usage in public schools has declined in most areas.  

How to stop corporal punishment in schools

So why has corporal punishment had such staying power?  

The researchers argue that it is a combination of history, how it has been rationalized and simply because it is still legally allowed. In the 15 states studied, some — but not all — individual schools chose to implement safeguards or limitations on corporal punishment.  

“Our data show that without its outright prohibition across the state or nationally, some schools will continue to use it and use it disproportionately for marginalized student groups,” Dhaliwal said. “We cannot rely on time and changes in public opinion to move away from the practice. Decisive action by state lawmakers is necessary to eradicate its use.”  

This story originally appeared on the College of Education website.

Media Contacts