Assessing whether corporal punishment helps students, or hurts them

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JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first: A new investigation examines the use of corporal, or physical, punishment in public schools. And that is the focus of our weekly education segment, Making the Grade.

The practice is far less common than it used to be, but a report in the journal “Education Week” finds that it’s still utilized in 21 states. And more than 100,000 children were physically punished in one recent year.

Proponents say it can be an effective way to motivate children to behave, but much research suggests otherwise.

We begin with the story of a 19-year-old in Mississippi Trey Clayton, who was paddled repeatedly in high school because of discipline problems.

The piece was produced by our partners at Education Week.

Mississippi leads the nation in the percentage of schools that use corporal punishment.

TREY CLAYTON, Mississippi: My name is Trey Clayton. I’m 19 now. My paddling took place Independence High School eighth grade.

School was fun. I got along with everybody. I was a good student. I just didn’t — I didn’t do my schoolwork. I didn’t do my homework. But, you know, I did good on my tests.

I guess I was happiest at school when I was playing football. I spent a lot of years in school getting in trouble. I have been caught with cigarettes, arguing with people, trying to fight people and stuff. I ran my mouth a lot. I didn’t really like getting told what to do.

But if I had the choice to get paddling, I would usually choose paddling, just to get it over with, because I didn’t want to spend time in school suspension, in ISS, or — because my parents always told me, don’t ever choose suspension, you know, because you don’t need — you can’t miss school. You will miss school.

It’s like any other day. I’m in trouble. My buddy’s in trouble. We’re talking. The librarian starts telling us to hush. I just had something smart to say back. And — but I know I was going to get paddled. I chose paddling.

So, I get three licks. They started to escort me to class. We walk out of his office. I went to walk around him and just woke up on the floor. I felt something in my mouth. And I start holding my hand out just to see what it is. And I start spitting out teeth, like shards of my teeth.

I done bit through both sides of my tongue. I have got one tooth already missing, and my jaw’s broke. And my mouth stays wired shut for six weeks.

When all this happened, we was taking what they call nine-week tests. And in the middle of them is when all this happened, so I never finished them. They never gave me the opportunity to retake them. So, it failed me for that year.

When I had to go back to the eighth grade at the same school, I just didn’t go to school much. And I failed again, until, finally, I was just like, there’s no sense in me staying, doing this.

Well, I have a 2-year-old and a 1-year-old. Now, the 2-year-old is not mine, but I take care of her as she is mine. But I love them. I love them to death.

I do believe in discipline. You know what I’m saying? I do believe they need to know what’s right and what’s wrong. But what happened to me, I wouldn’t want to happen to them. I wouldn’t want them to deal with that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Trey Clayton’s family filed a lawsuit against the school district, but they lost. The family eventually dropped the case. The current school superintendent in that district says corporal punishment is still used there, but that it’s — quote — “used very judiciously now.”

Jeffrey Brown has a closer look at all of this with Sarah Sparks of the Education Week team.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sarah Sparks, welcome to you.

I think a lot of people would be surprised at the continuing prevalence of this thing. Were you and your colleagues?

SARAH SPARKS, Education Week: We were a little surprised at how many states are still using corporal punishment.

We found 21 states and more than 4,000 schools were using physical discipline.

JEFFREY BROWN: All different age levels, grade levels?

SARAH SPARKS: Absolutely.

We found from kindergarten all the way up through high school, there were at least some students at every level.

JEFFREY BROWN: Also surprising and notable in your stories were how much policies can and do vary state to state and even within states.

SARAH SPARKS: Right.

In some districts, it was even school-by-school differences. There is no official training, not much guidance, and not a whole lot of accountability on how corporal punishment gets meted out.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about law?

SARAH SPARKS: We have 29 states who have outlawed corporal punishment; 21 allow it to some degree or another. And from state to state, the policies and practices differ tremendously.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, define terms here. What do we mean by corporal punishment?

SARAH SPARKS: We use the federal government’s definition, which is generally paddling, spanking, any physical discipline that is done to a child.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you find other kinds of punishment?

SARAH SPARKS: We did.

The data set that we used doesn’t differentiate by what implement gets used. We found everything from paddling with a 20-inch wooden paddle to some cases of chemical spray or even a Taser.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we should say, the data comes from the federal government, right, civil rights?

SARAH SPARKS: Right.

This is the most recent civil rights data from the Education Department. It’s for the 2013-’14 school year.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you also found in the data a disproportionate cases involve African-American children and lower-income children.

SARAH SPARKS: Right.

I was very surprised that black students were twice as likely as white students to experience corporal punishment. If you’re in a state that uses corporal punishment and you’re low-income, you’re also significantly more likely to be in a school that uses it.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, in the case of a student like Trey Clayton, who we saw in the video, do you see that as a special case, or as typical?

SARAH SPARKS: It’s typical of the risks of using corporal punishment in schools.

Trey Clayton said that his corporal punishment was a little more severe than he was used to, but Trey had been paddled many times in school before. And we just don’t know what made him pass out in his case that incident.

JEFFREY BROWN: The arguments that you often heard in favor of this are that it’s an alternative to suspension, for example.

SARAH SPARKS: Right.

We heard from people who were very much against corporal punishment, all the way to people who were defending corporal punishment, that this is something that could be used to get a kid disciplined quickly and bring them back to school. And it’s used for everything from talking back in class to fighting in the halls.

But the research shows that, in the long term, it can have the exact opposite effect that educators think it will and hope it will have. We have studies that find higher aggression rates, higher defiance of adults. There was even a recent neurological study that found students who had experienced corporal punishment several times over time had lower brain matter in the part of the brain associated with self-control.

So, there’s some negative side effects to this.

JEFFREY BROWN: And are people in places where they’re doing this aware of that? Or what was their reaction when you pointed out the research?

SARAH SPARKS: For the most part, they weren’t aware, but also had a sense of, this is part of our community. This is something that we as educators grew up with, and the kids that we have paddled over the years have grown up to be good people.

So, I think there’s a lot of community support in some of the areas that still heavily practice corporal punishment.

JEFFREY BROWN: And let me ask you finally, what rights, if any, do parents have if they want to keep their children from being subjected to corporal punishment?

SARAH SPARKS: In some states, parents are allowed to opt their child out of corporal punishment.

But that opt-out doesn’t carry the force of law. And from what we have seen in the lawsuits that have been brought over the years, you don’t stand a very good chance in court if you are a parent or student who feels you were inappropriately corporally punished.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Sarah Sparks of Education Week, thank you very much.

SARAH SPARKS: Thank you.

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