The Other School Violence

Last Updated: January 02, 2009

This article appeared in the January 2009 Rural Policy Matters.

Question: What can't be legally done in a police station, a juvenile detention center, a facility for treating drug addicts, or a religious cult compound, but is legal in public schools in 21 states?

Answer: Beat a child.

That's the grim reality documented with painful detail in a report on the use of corporal punishment in U.S. public schools by Human Rights Watch. See A Violent Education: Corporal Punishment of Children in U.S. Public Schools.

Read it on an empty stomach, unless it doesn't make you ill to learn about a teacher who paddled a 10 year old until he bled, sending him home hours later with his underpants sealed to his buttocks with dried blood. Three days later, the same boy was hit in the testicles as punishment for the grievous offense of playing with a pen during band class.

This is the kind of casual cruelty you'd expect to read about in a Charles Dickens novel.

But before you jump to the conclusion that this stuff doesn't need to be reported in the pages of a newsletter about rural education, open your eyes and ears to some sobering realities. Nearly a quarter-million U.S. students received corporal punishment in the 2006-07 school year. In Texas alone, more than 49,000 students were beaten, and in Mississippi, 7.5% of students received corporal punishment, the largest percentage in the nation. This is one of the few reports on education you will read where the word "rural" appears 83 times in 125 pages, nearly five times as often as the words "urban" and "suburban" combined. Ninety-five of the 100 largest school districts in America ban corporal punishment.

The 21 states that permit local districts to choose violence as a form of discipline comprise a solid swath of rural America, stretching across the South and Central Appalachia, the Southern Plains, the Southwest, and the Intermountain West.

The worst perpetrators are districts in the Old South (throw in Oklahoma and Missouri, but leave out Virginia). And it's no mistake that these states have heavy African American enrollments. Nationwide, African American students are 17.1 percent of the student population, but 35.6 percent of the victims of beatings.

Unbelievably, the most vulnerable students are also more likely to be beaten. Special education students in Texas made up 18.4 percent of the state's dubious first-place record number of beatings in 2006-07, despite comprising only 10.7 percent of the student population.

In some districts, it's so routine to beat kids that it seems like there must not be much time for anything else. One administrator says he was sent 37 students for corporal punishment in one day. What else could he (or she) have gotten done?

Some of the incidents in this report reveal a level of sadism we just do not expect of professional educators: beating a child in a room with the public address system turned on so the paddling and the crying can be heard throughout the school, or forcing a child to choose between being beaten and being suspended. These are the tactics, in the psychological nature of torture, of sadists and misanthropes.

Is Human Rights Watch making this up? Most of the data comes from reports schools themselves file with the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and the gruesome examples are well documented and carefully footnoted by an organization with a long record of getting it right when it comes to exposing human rights violations.

In fact, the report seems understated. It concludes weakly that corporal punishment may harm academic achievement and contribute to the dropout rate. Well, no kidding.

Beating kids not only makes them want to quit trying and get out, it has other effects.

  • It validates the use of violence, generally, and the domestic violence many children witness and experience at home, specifically.
  • It reinforces bullying, among both victims and their tormentors.
  • It turns schools into places of anger and hate, where students become depressed and withdrawn or act out their hostilities.
  • It sanctifies racial discrimination and creates a racially hostile environment, making it "acceptable" to racially profile children for abuse.
  • It thwarts any other form of practice for dealing with discipline problems. A teacher who does not want to subject a child to a beating doesn't send that child out of the classroom for discipline in a school where corporal punishment is the first resort.

Among the most despairing of the realities in this report is how helpless parents are to defend their children from this official brutality. Human Rights Watch reports that many states specifically protect educators who cause injury to children during beatings, police departments claim they have no reach into schools to prevent the kind of behavior they would stop if it occurred in a barroom, and courts protect teachers from claims raised in private lawsuits.

The good news is that 106 countries and 29 U.S. states prohibit corporal punishment in schools, and so do many school districts in the other 21 states still locked in 19th century madness. The bad news is that too much of rural America lags behind, and it is that part of rural America where poverty, race, and economic distress already present crushing barriers to public education as a pathway to hope and change.

Editor's note: We recognize that for many people the word "beating" holds a different connotation than the word "spanking." But that distinction of degree is rendered meaningless in public policy, particularly when protections are only afforded to the hitters. For more information on alternatives to corporal punishment in schools, see resources listed in this edition of RPM.

Read more from the January 2009 Rural Policy Matters.