When a Florida elementary school principal was caught on video spanking a six-year-old girl with a wooden paddle last month, it sparked national outrage and a criminal investigation. But for those who believed the principal should face arrest, a state prosecutor’s memo stung like a slap to the face.
Florida is one of 19 states in the country that allows corporal punishment in schools, but it’s prohibited in Hendry county, where the little girl was beaten, and state law requires educators to follow local rules. That was not enough, however, for state prosecutors to hold Melissa Carter, the principal, responsible for any wrongdoing. In a three-page memo outlining their decision not to pursue charges, they instead questioned the credibility of the girl’s mother, an undocumented immigrant who filmed the campus incident and shared it with the local television station WINK. Officials concluded the mother consented to the beating and at no point spoke up to “raise any objection”.
That the prohibition in her own school district did not protect the Florida first-grader from being hit is just one example of how corporal punishment persists even in places where the practice is explicitly outlawed.
About a dozen school districts in states where corporal punishment is banned reported using it on students more than 300 times during the 2017-18 school year, according to an analysis by The 74 of the most recent civil rights data from the US Department of Education. And in Louisiana, a state where paddling is permitted except on students with disabilities, data shows that special education students were hit nearly 100 times in 2017-18. Years of data have shown that students of color and those with disabilities are disproportionately subjected to corporal punishment, a practice that goes on despite a substantial body of research showing its harmful effects on youth development.
To the state senator Annettee Taddeo, a Democrat who has worked for several years to ban corporal punishment in Florida schools, the Hendry county video is proof that physical punishment continues under the radar in her state. Yet without a statewide ban, she said it was “very, very difficult for prosecutors to have a case” when educators dole out corporal punishment to students in violation of local rules.
“This is a major problem when, even in areas where supposedly it’s not supposed to happen, it’s still happening,” Taddeo told the 74. “When the school boards say ‘We don’t want this in our counties,’ we as parents think, ‘OK, that takes care of it.’ It does not.”
Districts in six states and the District of Columbia reported instances of corporal punishment in 2017-18 despite laws prohibiting its use. Of them, Chicago public schools accounted for the lion’s share, with children in the nation’s third-largest school district struck 226 times in school that year.
A district spokesman said all corporal punishment allegations are reported to the education department and since 2019, accused educators “are immediately removed from the classroom and thoroughly investigated”.
In September, the Chicago district agreed to pay $400,000 in court settlements after lawsuits accused educators of using physical force on two children with disabilities. Both educators were charged with felony aggravated battery.
Nationally, educators used corporal punishment on K-12 students nearly 100,000 times during the 2017-18 school year, according to the federal Civil Rights Data Collection. While educators’ use of corporal punishment has declined significantly in recent years, the practice remains prevalent almost exclusively in southern states where it is allowed. Mississippi was the national leader, with educators there subjecting students to corporal punishment nearly 28,000 times in one year.
The national numbers are likely to be a significant undercount, said Miriam Rollin, a director at the National Center for Youth Law. Every school district in the country self-reports its data to the federal government and they have long been accused of underreporting data on the use of restraint and seclusion. The same is probably true with corporal punishment, she said.
Corporal punishment is generally defined as using physical pain through hitting, paddling, spanking or other forms of physical force as a means of discipline. Florida law defines the practice as the “moderate use of physical force” to maintain school rules. One recent academic article defines it as “violent school discipline” through means that are “generally assaultive acts”.
In Louisiana, where educators are generally allowed to strike students, state and federal data shows that children with disabilities continue to be subjected to corporal punishment in more than a dozen districts, despite a 2017 state law that banned its use on youth with special needs.
In one example, data show that children with disabilities were subjected to corporal punishment at Caddo parish public schools in Shreveport during both the 2017-18 and 2019-20 school years. Mary Nash-Wood, the district spokeswoman, acknowledged that some school leaders “fought tooth and nail” against a corporal punishment ban and that two educators faced unspecified “disciplinary action” for “administering impermissible corporal punishment” on students with disabilities in violation of state law.
She said the district has since banned the use of corporal punishment on all students, including those without disabilities, and has trained educators to use restorative justice and recognize the effects of childhood trauma. The effort required extensive work “to change a mindset around corporal punishment and discipline to focus on why a child may be acting out rather than moving to punishment”, she said in an email.
In Florida, whereindividual districts are allowed to craft their own corporal punishment policies, during the 2017-18 school year, 19 of the state’s countywide school districts reported using physical punishment on kids more than 1,800 times.
Taddeo, the state senator, says that the state’s decentralized approach has allowed educators to avoid criminal charges after hitting kids in violation of local rules. In 2014, for example, a teacher’s aide in Broward county was arrested and accused of hitting a 10-year-old boy with autism for misbehaving in class. District policy prohibits corporal punishment in Broward county schools and an education committee found probable cause of alleged battery, yet her only punishment was a letter of reprimand, according to the Miami Herald.
Prosecutors wrote that they “could not in good faith” disregard state law permitting corporal punishment in schools despite the local rules. Five years later, the same teacher’s aide faced accusations that she cursed at and belittled children with disabilities.
Attorney Brent Probinsky, who represents the mother of the girl recently paddled in Florida, maintains that the paddling amounted to felony aggravated battery but prosecutors’ “flawed legal analysis” let Hendry county educators off the hook for what he called “a very brutal and savage punishment”. Hendry county school district officials declined to comment.
“It would be an aggravated battery if you hit an adult with that paddle [and] the fact that she hit a little first-grader makes it even worse,” Probinsky said. “It’s against the law to impose corporal punishment on prisoners. It’s against the law to impose corporal punishment on children in youth detention facilities. It’s against the law to impose corporal punishment on your cat or your dog or your horse, but you can do it to a little child. So it needs to end. It’s barbaric.”
‘A good ol’ fashioned spanking’
New Jersey became the first state to ban the practice in schools – in 1867 – and all but 19 have since followed suit.
Today, a considerable body of research suggests the practice can lead to significant and lifelong harms. National groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association have urged educators and parents to refrain from relying on corporal punishment, arguing that it does not bring about improvements in student behavior, but instead could cause emotional, behavioral and academic problems. Among them is a 2017 study in the peer-reviewed Journal of Pediatrics, which found that children who are spanked are far more likely to abuse intimate partners later in life.
Corporal punishment in schools has plummeted in recent years and lawmakers have increasingly put limits on its use. In fact, 96% of public schools in the US don’t use corporal punishment to discipline kids, according to a 2019 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
But holdouts remain. Among them is Ted Roush, the superintendent of the Suwannee county school district in northern Florida. His 6,100-student district was among Florida’s most frequent users of corporal punishment in 2017-18, with 230 instances recorded in the federal data. Roush said that people in more conservative and rural regions of the Bible belt like Suwannee county are “a little more old-school in the way they address issues”. By giving students “a couple of swats” with a paddle, he said that educators avoid “more severe disciplinary actions” like suspensions that remove children from classrooms and away from learning.
“There’s a firm belief among most of our folks that kids, when they get out of line, there’s a direct connection between the rear end and the brain,” he said.
‘Vestiges of slavery’
While students of color and those with disabilities are disproportionally subjected to corporal punishment at school compared with their white and non-disabled classmates, one recent report suggests that the roots of corporal punishment in southern schools run deep – with ties to lynching.
The report, published this year in the journal Social Problems, found that in places where lynching was once routine, schools are more likely to rely on corporal punishment today – especially against Black students. The south has a “distinct history of racialized violence for social control purposes,” researchers noted.
“As is lynching itself a vestige of slavery, so too is beating and whipping people,” Jackson, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said. Corporal punishment is used in schools on students who educators “believe are either less than deserving of grace or people who you believe need to be controlled, people who you believe need to be kept in line as opposed to being nurtured or educated”.
Though previous federal efforts have failed to to ban corporal punishment in schools, Rollin, of the National Center for Youth Law, said the Biden administration could combat the practice through the education department’s Office for Civil Rights. Given corporal punishment’s disparate impact on students of color and those with disabilities, she urged the office to investigate districts for discrimination.
“There’s a reason we don’t go to the Colosseum and watch lions ripping people open,” Jackson said. “At some point, we have to evolve.”
- This report was first published by the 74, a non-profit, non-partisan news site covering education in America