Originally published in The Clarion Ledger, May 14, 2013, 9A.
The harsh treatment of prisoners in the U.S. causes much controversy, yet in our public schools, institutionalized
violence is commonplace.
In April, the Hattiesburg American reported that corporal punishment declined in Mississippi schools between 2007 and 2012 from more than 58,000 reported instances to around 39,000.
The use of corporal punishment varies greatly by school district. For the Lafayette County School District’s roughly 2,700 students, there were seven recorded cases of corporal punishment in the 2009-2010 school year and none the following year. By contrast, the Quitman County School District enrolls just under 1,300 students, yet recorded 1,594 instances of corporal punishment in the 2010-2011 academic year, which is only about 180 school days.
In the U.S., all 50 states permit corporal punishment in domestic settings. For public and private schools, however, only 19 states still practice it, while in Iowa and New Jersey it is illegal to perform in schools.
Iowa is a helpful state to use in comparison with Mississippi, since it is largely rural and has a comparable population size. Of course, Iowa has its problems, with seven schools districts named “dropout factories” in a 2007 Associated Press report. The same report called 44 of Mississippi’s schools “dropout factories.”
At best, corporal punishment in schools is not helping Mississippi. At worst, it is part of the problem.
According to studies, most parents find spankings in the home to be acceptable. It is important to distinguish parenting from schooling, however, and to watch out for institutional excesses. The 1980 federal case Hall v. Tawney said that excess corporal punishment in schools could violate a student’s “right to ultimate bodily security, the most fundamental aspect of personal privacy, (which) is unmistakably established in our constitutional decisions as an attribute of the ordered liberty that is the concern of substantive due process.”
Not all spankings in schools might be called excessive, of course, yet cases reported on in the Hattiesburg American raise serious concern. In 2011, 14-year-old Trey Clayton of Independence High School was paddled so severely that he fainted, “fell face-first onto the concrete floor … (and) had five shattered teeth and a lacerated chin,” according to reporter Marquita Brown.
Beyond legal concerns and the tragically severe cases, there are strong reasons to end institutionalized corporal punishment.
Bust of Socrates, Plato’s teacher.
First, students are compelled to be in school, and with good reason. Democratic societies must educate citizens to be self-governing. Yet Plato and other philosophers believed correctly, I think, that learning cannot take hold by compulsion. Socrates argued that “nothing taught by force stays in the soul.”
Compulsory schooling can address Plato’s worry, however, by showing students the value of education. It is vital to create an environment in which education is welcoming and inviting. Corporal punishment has the reverse effect.
Second, corporal punishment teaches students that when confronted with a challenge, adults use violence rather than reason to achieve our ends. It solidifies “school-to-prison pipelines” that the Justice Department is combating.
In Mississippi, we know that culture matters and that many of our schools are struggling. Corporal punishment is only one element of a culture which discourages students. Ending the practice, however, would contribute meaningfully to the reconstruction of an encouraging and positive culture of achievement in education.
Eric Thomas Weber is assistant professor of public policy leadership at the University of Mississippi and author of three books, including Democracy and Leadership (2013). He is representing only his own views. Follow @EricTWeber on Twitter. Visit EricThomasWeber.org.