Study shows corporal punishment in schools is biased, harmful

Sachit Saksena

Corporal punishment in schools is not a pertinent issue in the minds’ of most Americans, but approximately 160,000 children, especially minorities, still experience this practice yearly. 

Elizabeth Gershoff, UT human development and family sciences associate professor, recently published a report on the use of corporal punishment in 19 states across the US. Gershoff said the results come as a surprise to most Americans, who are unaware the practice, which can range from a strike with a ruler to paddling with a wooden plank, is still legal.

“A lot of Americans are surprised to hear that [corporal punishment] is still legal in the United States,” Gershoff said. “People think that it’s just something that no one does anymore, but 160,000 kids or more a year are corporally punished in school.”

Gershoff analyzed patterns in corporal punishment by looking at national data from the Department of Education — disciplinary reports separated by age, gender, ethnicity and disability — at the school district level. 

“The Department of Education has been very concerned with perceived discriminatory behavior in suspensions at school, but hadn’t looked at all at corporal punishment,” Gershoff said. “I figured, that’s what I’ll do.”

According to the report, corporal punishment is used disproportionately on different groups. Particularly, African-Americans are more likely to experience this treatment. Gershoff also said this happens not just in schools where African Americans are in the minority.

“In communities that are primarily African-American, there are high rates, still, of paddling black children more than white children,” Gershoff said.

According to Gershoff, this could be a deeper representation of American views on minority youth in the community. 

Disparity in corporal punishment is most clear with gender and disabilities, with boys and disabled children facing higher rates of physical abuse overall, according to Gershoff. 

Aarti Bhat, who works with preschool and middle school students around Austin, said that in her experience certain groups, particularly young black males, are given harsher punishments for equivalent infractions as their classmates.

“While for another child, the excuse might be “kids will be kids”, black males are often ‘adultified,’ and their actions are perceived to be more dangerous,” said Bhat, a human development and family sciences junior.

According to US federal law, schools are afforded in loco parentis, which states that because of a school’s involvement with children, school officials can act as legal guardians to children during school hours. This means that schools and districts have the ability to choose how they discipline their students. Gershoff said this is a major problem.

The US is one of two industrialized nations to allow the practice. Texas allows corporal punishment, and while state law includes an “opt-out” policy, it is loosely enforced, and often parents do not opt-out, Gershoff said. 

“Children are the only group that we’re allowed to hit,” Gershoff said. “They outlawed corporal punishment with prisoners in the 1950s, the military stopped using it back then, but it hasn’t changed for children.”

Gershoff previously studied the effects of negative reinforcement, and repeatedly confirmed that physical abuse leads to aggression, mental health problems and poor academic performance.

Gershoff said she plans to expand her research to understanding the specific psychological effects of corporal punishment in school by collecting data from children. There is currently little to no national data on this issue. 

Gershoff said that policies on corporal punishment can change by spreading awareness and enacting laws.

“The most effective alternative could be a Supreme Court decision,” Gershoff said. “They ruled in 1977 that corporal punishment is constitutional … but they haven’t heard a case since then. I guess we will have to wait until after this election.”