Despite important improvements in public education in the past five decades in the United States, many of which were prompted by the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education (1954), children of color continue to suffer from policies that have the purpose or effect of discriminating against them, both of which are prohibited by ICERD. There are myriad policies that raise concerns under ICERD, some of which are addressed in the 2007 US State Party Report to CERD. Other important concerns are raised in the joint NGO submission to the Committee, including intersections between poverty and inadequate education for children of color, as well as concerns raised by the federal law known as No Child Left Behind.
In this submission, Human Rights Watch presents the Committee with a specific illustration of discriminatory treatment suffered by children of color in US public schools: racial disparities in the use of corporal punishment. Though the federal government claims it is actively engaged in the enforcement of anti-discrimination statutes in the area[s] of education, Human Rights Watch believes that the United States has failed to give the issue of corporal punishment, and in particular its more widespread use against children of color, sufficient attention.62
The use of corporal punishment in US public schools violates US obligations under Article 5(b) of ICERD to protect the right of everyone, without distinction to security of person and protection by the State against violence or bodily harm, whether inflicted by government officials or by any individual group or institution.63 As a consequence of seeking public education and training, children of color, specifically African-American and Native American students, find their rights to security of person violated at disproportionate rates in the United States.
Corporal punishment in US public schools usually takes the form of paddling (striking the students clothed or sometimes naked buttocks with a piece of wood approximately three inches wide, 20 inches long, and half an inch thick). Human Rights Watch has received additional reports of students being beaten in school with a set of rulers taped together,64 a hall pass,65 a thin wooden plank,66 and a belt.67 Students are punished for minor disciplinary infractions, such as tardiness or untucked shirt-tails, as well as the catch-all category of disrespect for authority. Students are also subjected to corporal punishment for violent misbehavior such as fighting or threatening other students. Students as young as five years old are subjected to corporal punishment, though the practice is more prevalent among older students.
Corporal punishment is legal in public schools in almost half of the constituent states of the US.68 According to federal government statistics, in the 2004-2005 school year (the most recent year for which data are available), 272,028 students were hit.69 The practice is particularly prevalent in states in the South.70 In Mississippi, 8 percent of school children, or 40,692 students, received corporal punishment in the 2003-2004 school year.71 More than 1 percent of school children were similarly punished in seven other states: Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas.72
The racially disparate use of corporal punishment in US public schools subjects students to violations of their right to be free from bodily harm. When compared to relevant percentages of the nationwide student population, both African-American boys and African-American girls are significantly more likely to be punished than their white counterparts; African-American boys make up only 8.6 percent of the national student population, but 27.7 percent of those paddled, while African-American girls make up 8.3 percent of the national student population and 10.7 percent of those paddled.73 In Texas, where 50,489 students were beaten in the 2004-2005 school year, more than in any other state in the nation, African-American girls are almost twice as likely to be beaten as their white counterparts.74 Native American students are also singled out for punishment more frequently than students of other races: in Oklahoma, for example, Native American boys are subject to corporal punishment at more than double their rate in the student population.75
Schools that use corporal punishment at racially disproportionate rates create a hostile school environment in which students of color may struggle to succeed. Human Rights Watch has spoken with parents who removed their children from public school after they were subjected to racially motivated corporal punishment.76 Numerous parents have expressed concerns to Human Rights Watch that white administrators and teachers inflicted bodily harm on African-American students more frequently and more harshly than white students.77 A former school administrator echoed those concerns,78 while a former school board member of a major city expressed her belief that many white male teachers felt more comfortable paddling black girls than white girls.79 In interviews with Human Rights Watch, both parents and students repeatedly linked the use of corporal punishment in schools to slavery, characterizing hitting young African-Americans as a measure of classroom control as a dehumanizing reminder of techniques used to control slaves on plantations.80 One African-American student in a small town in Mississippi reported to Human Rights Watch that her African-American assistant principal told her that she should be paddled to make her behave less ghetto and more like white people.81
While there has been a steady decline in the use of corporal punishment in US public schools since the early 1980s, the federal government has an obligation to engage directly in the issue to eradicate the practice nationwide. Twenty-nine states have passed legislation banning the practice; governments in the remaining states must be pushed to do the same if the United States is to come into compliance with its obligations under ICERD.
62 Government of the United States, Periodic Report Concerning ICERD, 2007, para. 59.
63 ICERD, Article 5(b).
64 Human Rights Watch interview with middle school student (name withheld) in Marks, Mississippi, December 12, 2007.
65 Human Rights Watch interview with high school student (name withheld) in Jackson, Mississippi, December 5, 2007.
66 Human Rights Watch interviews with middle school student and middle school teacher (names withheld) in Marks, Mississippi, December 12, 2007.
67 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with middle school teacher (name withheld) in Sunflower, Mississippi, December 19, 2007 (referring to events that occurred in 1997).
68 Corporal punishment in schools is legal in some form in 21 states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming. See, Global Coalition to End Violence Against Children, End All Corporal Punishment of Children: United States, June 2007, http://www.endcorporalpunishment.org/pages/frame.html (accessed February 1, 2008).
69 United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection 2004, 2004, http://vistademo.beyond2020.com/ocr2004rv30/wdsdata.html (accessed December 19, 2007). The data collected refer to each student who was subjected to corporal punishment as opposed to each incident. The instructions issued direct schools to "Enter the number of students who received corporal punishment. Count each student only once regardless of the number of times punished." United States Department of Education, Civil Rights Data Collection Individual School Report: ED102, Reporting Requirement, March 31, 2005, www.ed.gov/about/inits/ed/pbdmi/surveytool/crdcollection/ed102_inst.pdf (accessed February 1, 2008).
70 The states with the highest percentage of students paddled per year are, in order: Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Georgia, Texas, Missouri, and Kentucky. See, United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection 2004.
71 United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection 2004.
72 United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection 2004.
73African-American boys make up 8.58 percent of the national student population and 27.74 percent of those paddled; white boys make up 30.13 percent of the national student population and 43.24 percent of those paddled. African-American girls make up 8.30 percent of the national student population and 10.72 percent of those paddled; white girls make up 28.32 percent of the national student population and 9.33 percent of those paddled. United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection 2004.
74 African-American girls make up 6.81 percent of the statewide student population and 5.53 percent of those paddled; white girls make up 18.90 percent of the student population and 8.03 percent of those paddled. United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection 2004.
75 Native American boys make up 10.29 percent of the statewide student population and 21.93 percent of those paddled. United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection 2004.
76 Human Rights Watch interviews with parents (names withheld) in Stonewall, Mississippi, December 11, 2007 (white parents believe their sons were paddled more severely because of their friendships with African-American boys and ultimately chose to withdraw the boys from school based on the severity of the punishment).
77 Human Rights Watch interviews with parents (names withheld) in Indianola, Mississippi on December 4 and 12, 2007.
78 Human Rights Watch interview with former elementary school principal and assistant superintendent (name withheld) in Jackson, Mississippi on December 7, 2007.
79 Human Rights Watch interview with former Jackson Public Schools board member (name withheld), December 5, 2007.
80 Human Rights Watch interviews with parents (names withheld) in Indianola, Mississippi on December 4, 2007 and Eupora, Mississippi on December 11, 2007, and with high school students (names withheld) in Sunflower, Mississippi on December 4, 2007 and Jackson, Mississippi on December 5, 2007.
81 Human Rights Watch interview with sixth grader (name withheld) in Eupora, Mississippi, December 11, 2007.