When Wendy Chandler received a back-to-school packet from her daughter’s Alabama elementary school in 2013, she was stunned. Included in the packet was a permission slip asking if school staff members could administer corporal punishment on her child as a form of discipline.
Chandler said that she did not give permission and wrote a note at the bottom of the slip that said: “I can not imagine how it would ever be ok to show violence towards anyone. Hitting a child is beyond disgraceful. Anyone who could hit a child should be put in jail.”
At the time, Chandler had assumed that corporal punishment was no longer allowed in schools. Little did she know that the practice is not only allowed in 19 states, but that schools in Alabama allow it to occur more often than in almost any other state, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and Penn State.
The study, released earlier this month, looked at how often corporal punishment occurs in schools, using 2011-2012 data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. It found that the practice is most often allowed in Southern states, particularly in Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama, where over half of schools report allowing physical discipline. In total, the data shows that over 163,000 students were subjected to corporal punishment that school year, although numbers did not capture if children were subjected to this punishment more than once.
Black children are disproportionately at the receiving ends of these punishments, even though white children are typically more likely to attend a school that allows the practice, the study found. In over half of school districts in Alabama and Mississippi, black children are 51 percent more likely to receive corporal punishment. In a fifth of the state’s school districts, black students are over 500 percent more likely to get physically disciplined.
Male students and students with disabilities are also substantially more likely to receive corporal punishment than their peers. In Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi, boys are more likely to be physically disciplined in about 75 percent of school districts.
Study author Sarah Font, an assistant professor of sociology, said she found the results somewhat unpredictable.
“I think what really surprised me was the extent of the gap between both black and white students and male and female students. It was so excessive,” said Font. “We’re hoping to draw attention to the fact that this is still happening, and just like a lot of other forms of school discipline, is used discriminatorily in regards to race and disability.”
Chandler does not know if black or male students are disproportionately subjected to corporal punishment in Leeds City Schools, where her daughter went. She swiftly pulled her daughter out of the institution and opted to homeschool instead. While Chandler tried to rally parents around the cause of abandoning corporal punishment, her efforts did not garner much interest. Chandler and her family now live in Tennessee.
“Some of the parents were really reluctant to go on record or even join me because their parents hit them and they didn’t want to demonize their parents,” said Chandler.
Corporal punishment is defined differently by states and schools. The Texas Education code defines it as “the deliberate infliction of physical pain by hitting, paddling, spanking, slapping, or any other physical force used as a means of discipline,” according to the study. A board of education in Pickens, Alabama, urges schools to use a “wooden paddle approximately 24 inches in length, 3 inches wide and ½ inch thick,” says the study.
Science is not on corporal punishment’s side. The practice is not shown to promote compliance, and even makes kids more likely to act out, according to research cited in the study.
Chandler worried that going to a school with corporal punishment could psychologically impact her daughter, even if she was not the one getting hit. Her daughter once heard a teacher threaten to physically discipline a classmate.
“We didn’t want her to hear that adults can be monsters. We wanted her to trust that people were good,” said Chandler. “We were putting her into an an environment where adults threatened violence. I wasn’t going to do it.”