Teachers and principals can still punish disobedient students with a beating — usually with a wood or fiberglass paddle — in many parts of the US.
Corporal punishment in public schools is legal in 19 states. And while far fewer students are beaten now than were a generation ago, the Education Department estimates that more than 200,000 students were beaten by teachers or administrators in public schools during the 2009-10 academic year.
The issue is far from high-profile, even as the Obama administration seeks to correct racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. The Hechinger Report (co-published with The Nation) has a long, fascinating reported piece this week on the racial dynamics of corporal punishment in Mississippi. Beatings fall disproportionately on black students, but corporal punishment is used more often in districts where students and teachers are black.
But while Mississippi is undisputedly the paddling capital of America — the Education Department estimates that about 41,000 students were beaten there in 2009-10 — corporal punishment is still legal in 18 other states. Here's a look at the national landscape.
Corporal punishment is legal in 19 states
Here's a map of where it's legal for teachers to paddle kids:
It's already clear from this map that corporal punishment is concentrated in the South and a few parts of the West, and in states that are traditionally more socially conservative.
But that doesn't mean it's used in all of them
But just because it's legal doesn't mean it's frequently employed. Just 80 students were beaten in Idaho in 2009-10, according to Education Department estimations; that's out of about 268,000 students in the entire state. Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina, and South Carolina posted similarly small numbers.
Where are students actually beaten? Texas and in the Deep South, particularly the Delta region: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas. Georgia and Oklahoma also posted relatively high numbers.
This doesn't mean paddling is common. Mississippi had about 490,000 public school students in 2009-10; students paddled make up less than 10 percent of the total population.
Corporal punishment isn't just a Southern phenomenon — it's a rural one
Corporal punishment is meted out much more frequently in rural districts, in part because many urban and suburban districts ban it even if their state does not. All but two of the nation's largest school districts forbid corporal punishment. One of the two that does not, in Garland, Texas, had no reported paddlings in 2011-12; the other, Caddo Paris, Louisiana, reported 410 paddlings in a district of about 42,000 students.
The proportion of students paddled is much higher in rural districts, particularly small ones. Mobile County, Alabama, paddled no students in 2011-12. In Shelby County, a large, rural district with about 30,000 students, less than 1 percent of students were paddled. But in other, smaller, rural districts, the proportions are in double digits.
Students of color and students with disabilities are beaten more frequently
And boys are paddled much more frequently than girls. About three-quarters of students paddled in 2009-10 were boys, according to Education Department estimates.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which advocates for ending corporal punishment in schools, found that in 2006, students with disabilities were paddled more frequently than students without. Black students made up 36 percent of students paddled that year, while they were only 22 percent of the student population in states that allowed paddling.
The Supreme Court says it's legal
The Supreme Court last considered the constitutionality of corporal punishment in the public schools in 1977, when all but five states allowed corporal punishment. Justices ruled in a 5-4 decision that it was permissable. The justices' rationale? The constitutional prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishment" applies only to the criminal justice system, not to schools. Schoolchildren, Justice Lewis Powell wrote for the majority, are protected by the openness of the school system and have other recourse — such as suing the school district — if corporal punishment is handed out unjustly.
That precedent has stood for 37 years. In the meantime, 26 states have banned corporal punishment. In 2008, the Supreme Court declined to take up an appeal challenging its constitutionality. That lawsuit was filed by an 18-year-old high school student at a Texas charter school who was paddled three times for going off-campus to buy breakfast.