August 23, 2008

By Alice Farmer and Nsombi Lambright, published in The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi)
 
All parents want their children to attend safe schools where the focus is on learning and students of all races are treated fairly. Unfortunately, after months of investigation into the use of corporal punishment in Mississippi, including interviews with dozens of parents, children and educators, we have discovered that neither is true in many of Mississippi's public schools.

In the United States, 223,190 public school students were subjected to corporal punishment in the 2006-2007 school year, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. Almost 40,000 of those students reside in Mississippi, which has by far the highest rate of corporal punishment in the United States.  
 
Almost all of these children were subjected to "paddling," where an adult, usually a man, beats the child on the buttocks with a rigid wooden board. These beatings cause pain and sometimes deep bruising.  
 
Though some educators believe that corporal punishment is an effective way to deter students from misbehavior, including students who may engage in disruptive and harmful behaviors like fighting, corporal punishment teaches students that violence is legitimate. There is also no evidence that it promotes better learning.  
 
In fact, many students become angry as a result of their punishment. Students told us repeatedly that paddling only makes them want to lash out against teachers or other students. Indeed, research suggests that children who are physically punished are more inclined to engage in aggressive conduct.  
 
Adding racial discrimination to physical injury, African-American children are beaten at disproportionate rates.  
 
In Mississippi, African-American boys are punished at 1.7 times the rate that would be expected given their numbers in the student population.  
 
African-American girls in Mississippi are 2.2 times as likely as white girls to be paddled, a number that exceeds rates in other states. There is no evidence that these students commit disciplinary infractions at disproportionate rates.  
 
Some students in minority communities already face obstacles to academic success – from lack of resources to low expectations. When these students are beaten at disproportionate rates, their right to non-discrimination in education is violated. The fabric of the school community is weakened, creating a hostile environment in which minority students struggle to succeed.  
 
Students and educators we spoke with drew parallels between corporal punishment in schools and slavery again and again. Corporal punishment "has its origins in the times of slavery when slaves were tied up and whipped as a means of control," observed one superintendent. "But because you get compliance does not mean you have control."  
 
All students need safe, orderly, and disciplined classrooms. Yet for far too many students in Mississippi, discipline has come to mean routine violence and degradation.  
 
Alternative discipline methods, such as detention, loss of privileges and reinforcement of good behavior can better address students' needs and are being implemented in school districts from Chicago to Kentucky. School children in Mississippi deserve no less.  
 
Alice Farmer is the Aryeh Neier fellow at Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, and author of "A Violent Education." Nsombi Lambright is the executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi.