I. Summary and Key Recommendations
On August 18, 2003, 10-year-old Tim L. started the fifth grade at his public elementary school in rural east Texas. On the fourth day of school, Tim refused to run in gym class because he did not have his asthma medication. When the gym coach confronted him, Tim said, coach sucks. The coach then took a wooden paddle and beat Tim severely on the buttocks. Faye L., Tims mother, reported, There was blood in his underpants . I had to pull the underwear off his behind from the dried blood.1
Though Tim had always been an enthusiastic student, he begged his mother not to make him get on the school bus the next day. Three days later, with his bruises still fresh, Tim was hit again, this time by a teacher, for playing with a pen during band class. His genitals were bruised and swollen. With her son physically injured and terrified of school, Faye decided she could not risk sending him back. She began to teach him herself, at home.
Faye wanted school authorities to hold the teachers accountable. They reminded her, however, that corporal punishment is legal in their district, and refused to take disciplinary action against the two teachers who had hit her son. When she tried to file assault charges, the police dissuaded her, saying she had to follow school procedure. Next, she attempted to pursue private litigation, but her claims were dismissed in court because the law provides immunity for teachers who paddle.
Faye was left feeling that she had no way to seek justice for the injuries her son had already sustained, and no way to protect him from future harm. Though Tim asked to go back to school, Faye felt she could not offer him a guarantee of safety in their public school district. The law is supposed to be there to protect you. How do you explain this to your son, after this? Well, Im sorry, honey. Thats all you can say.2
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Tims mothers tenacity and commitment to protecting her sons rights make this story extraordinary. Yet in other ways, Tims story is far from unique. In school districts in many states, students of all ages are routinely subjected to corporal punishment.3 Though some states have outlawed the practice, it is permitted by some federal and state laws. Hundreds of school districts allow students to be beaten, and state legislatures provide specific legal protection for educators who injure students when using corporal punishment. Studies show that beatings can damage the trust between educator and student, corrode the educational environment, and leave the student unable to learn effectively, making it more likely he or she will leave school. African-American students are punished at disproportionately high rates, creating a hostile environment in which minority students struggle to succeed.
The United States is out of step with international practice and jurisprudence on the use of corporal punishment in schools. Today 106 countries outlaw the practice, including the United Kingdom and other European countries, following rulings on corporal punishment by the European Court of Human Rights. Experts charged with issuing definitive interpretations of international human rights treaties also consistently have concluded that corporal punishment by school officials and teachers violates governmental obligations to protect children from physical violence and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. The disproportionate use of corporal punishment against African-American students in particular violates the right to non-discrimination in accessing education.
As students across the United States return to school each year, they, like their parents, are hoping for academic success. Policymakers and educators have the important responsibility of creating an educational environment based on respect, including an effective disciplinary system. Yet for many students, discipline means extensive use of violence.
According to the Office for Civil Rights at the US Department of Education, 223,190 students nationwide received corporal punishment at least once in the 2006-2007 school year, including 49,197 students in Texas alone, the largest number of any state. In Mississippi, 7.5 percent of public school students were paddled during this period, the highest percentage in the nation. The actual numbers almost surely are higher: Human Rights Watch interviewees reported that corporal punishment is often administered in a chaotic environment in which many instances of the practice are not recorded. One administrator reported that 37 students in a single day were sent to his office for corporal punishment. A high school student in another district estimated that as many as 60 students a day are paddled at her school.
Today 21 US states permit corporal punishment to be used in schools. Corporal punishment usually takes the form of paddling (also called swats, pops, or licks). A teacher or administrator swings a hard wooden paddle that is typically a foot-and-a-half long against the childs buttocks, anywhere between three and 10 times. Paddling can happen in the office or elsewhere, as noted by one Mississippi teacher: The principal would do it in the hallway, in the classroom, in the band room. He would patrol the hallways with a paddle.4 Students can be physically punished for a wide range of misbehavior, including minor infractions such as chewing gum, being late, sleeping in class, talking back to a teacher, violating the dress code, or going to the bathroom without permission.
Even students who are not punished find themselves in a hostile, violent environment designed to instill fear. One student told us that licks would be so loud and hard you could hear it through the walls. A teacher reported that a principal turned on the loud speaker while paddling a student: It was on the intercom in every class in the school . He was trying to send a message [l]ike, you could be next.
Minor bruising and stinging are the most common results of corporal punishment. Some children are more seriously injured. Some parents we interviewed sought medical care for their children who, like Tim L., sustained bleeding and deep bruising to the buttocks. Other children sustained blows to other parts of their bodies, including their hands or arms when they reached back to protect themselves. Corporal punishment can also impact students mental health, especially for some special education students.
For hundreds of thousands of school children in the US, violence inflicted by those in authority is a regular part of their experience at school. All corporal punishment, whether or not it causes significant physical injury, represents a violation of each students rights to physical integrity and human dignity. It is degrading and humiliating, damaging the students self-esteem and making him or her feel helpless.
A number of teachers told us that as students are beaten, or see those around them beaten, the trust between administrators, teachers, and students is often destroyed. Over time, students may become less engaged in school and less interested in exploring and discovering new academic concepts. Corporal punishment may result in the student failing to thrive academically and may contribute to school drop out.
Though some educators believe that corporal punishment is an effective way to deter students from misbehavior, including students who may engage in physically disruptive and harmful behaviors like fighting, corporal punishment teaches students that violence is legitimate. Research suggests that children who are physically punished are more inclined to engage in aggressive conduct toward their siblings, parents, teachers, and schoolmates.
As a consequence of the helplessness and humiliation felt by students who experience corporal punishment, some students become angry: students told Human Rights Watch that it only makes them want to lash out against teachers or other students. Others become depressed or withdrawn; still others become immune to the constant violence, accepting it as a part of their daily lives.
Some parents are concerned that the use of corporal punishment in schools could also legitimize domestic violence in the home. One mother observed: What are we teaching our young women when a school principal can swat on the behind? Were saying that its okay for a man to beat a woman [thats] something we dont want in our families.
Corporal punishment in the US disproportionately affects African-American students, and in some areas, Native American students. In the 2006-2007 school year, African-American students made up 17.1 percent of the nationwide student population, but 35.6 percent of those paddled. In the same year, in the 13 states with the highest rates of paddling, 1.4 times as many African-American students were paddled as might be expected given their percentage of the student population. Although girls of all races were paddled less than boys, African-American girls were nonetheless physically punished at more than twice the rate of their white counterparts in those 13 states during this period. These disparities violate students right to non-discrimination in access to education, making it harder for these students to succeed and undermining the social fabric of schools.
Special education studentsstudents with mental or physical disabilitiesalso receive corporal punishment at disproportionate rates. For instance, in Texas, the number of special education students who were beaten in the 2006-2007 school year amounted to 18.4 percent of the total number of students who received corporal punishment statewide. However, special education students made up only 10.7 percent of the Texas student population, meaning almost twice as many were beaten as might be expected. Corporal punishment damages these students education as much as other students, and it may also adversely affect some students underlying physical or psychological conditions.
Students, parents, and teachers encounter obstacles when trying to limit corporal punishment. For instance, teachers who work in schools that use corporal punishment may find themselves without alternative ways of disciplining particularly troublesome students. We interviewed teachers who wanted to send chronically misbehaving students out of the classroom, but were reluctant to do so knowing they would be beaten. While some teachers believe corporal punishment is an effective tool, other teachers concur with academic research showing that positive forms of discipline such as counseling and mediation are more effective in addressing the students underlying issues. Yet if the school does not support these forms of discipline, individual teachers face obstacles implementing them on a classroom-by-classroom basis.
Students are sometimes asked to choose between corporal punishment and other forms of discipline such as suspensions or detentions, decisions children should not be asked to make. One elementary teacher described her pupils decision process as follows: I take the five licks because Im nine and I want to go outside and play.5 Older students choose paddling because they want to seem tough or because their parents are less likely to find out about the underlying infraction. While it is a recognized principle of human rights that children should have a voice in making the policies to which they are subjected (and that participation is increasingly important as they get older), giving children of any age a stark choice between being beaten and other forms of discipline is not appropriate. Rather, it is a form of coercion that exploits vulnerable young people with underdeveloped decision-making capabilities, asking them to trade away their right to be free from beatings by school personnel.
Parents in some school districts are given methods of opting out of the use of corporal punishment on their children. However, these mechanisms are inadequate: parents report that opt-out forms are ignored and that their children are beaten anyway. Parents have virtually no legal recourse when opt-out forms are ignored, or when their children are beaten severely with or without an opt-out form. Human Rights Watch investigated several cases in which parents said school districts were unwilling to provide adequate responses, police were reluctant to investigate, and courts were unable to offer redress. Some parents we interviewed, like Faye L., felt they had no recourse but to withdraw their children from school and teach them at home.
While corporal punishment is prohibited in most US juvenile detention centers and even foster care settings, it continues to be allowed in certain US public schools. Many parents and teachers hold to the belief that corporal punishment in public schools has an instructive purpose, providing the discipline necessary for children to learn. The fact that many people believe that corporal punishment has a genuine pedagogical function does not diminish the fact that it violates childrens human rights.
International instruments, including the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN Convention against Torture, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, prohibit the use of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, regardless of circumstance. Corporal punishment in US public schools also violates other human rights, including the right to freedom from physical violence and the right to non-discrimination. Corporal punishment infringes on the right to education, and educational experts have concluded that the use of corporal punishment hinders learning, encourages children to drop out of school, and generally undermines the purposes of education as articulated by a broad spectrum of US educators and embodied in international law.
Standards set by the US government and many states on corporal punishment fall far below the best practices counseled by educational experts and the obligations inherent in international human rights law. Though more than half the states prohibit the use of corporal punishment in schools, federal law does not ban the practice. The US Supreme Court has refused to impose constitutional restrictions on the practice of reasonable corporal punishment.6
Some state laws criminalize the imposition of excessive corporal punishment, but the standard of excessiveness is hard for students to prove. While some school districts have attempted to regulate corporal punishment, for example by placing limits on the number of blows a child may receive or requiring that the paddler not beat the child in anger, these regulations have proved difficult if not impossible to enforce. And such attempts do not address the basic fact that a childs rights are violated whenever he or she is beaten by school authorities.
While some Americans might believe firmly in the adage spare the rod, spoil the child, corporal punishment has increasingly been prohibited in many states and municipalities. In fact, 95 of the 100 largest school districts in the country have banned corporal punishment, including Houston, Dallas, Memphis, Atlanta, and Mobile County.7 Twenty-nine states and Washington, DC, have banned the practice,8 as have many school districts within states that permit corporal punishment. Outside of the US, as noted above, 106 countries reject the use of corporal punishment in public schools.9
Teachers in districts that use corporal punishment may want the best for their students, and may genuinely believe that corporal punishment can help to educate them. Likewise, parents and even children want orderly, safe school environments in which students can learn. But corporal punishment is not the answer. The practice hurts students, it damages the cohesive school culture that they need in order to learn, it is discriminatory, and it teaches violence as an appropriate response to problems.
Poverty and lack of resources help create conditions that lead to corporal punishment in schools. Teachers may have overcrowded classrooms and lack resources such as counselors to assist with particularly disruptive students or classroom dynamics. These conditions do not facilitate effective discipline, and they may explain why teachers feel it is necessary to subject students to beatings, but they do not excuse such actions.
Better approaches to school discipline are available. Effective discipline does not require paddling of students. Nationwide, teachers and administrators increasingly have been using positive discipline methods that foster nurturing school cultures, which allow students to thrive. With appropriate funding, training, and support, teachers and administrators can implement discipline systems that respond to students fundamental needs and do better at producing environments in which every student can maximize his or her academic potential.
1 Human Rights Watch interview with Faye L., rural east Texas, February 26, 2008.
3 This report examines the use of corporal punishment in US public schools. While US private schools are not the subject of this report, Human Rights Watch is aware that corporal punishment occurs in some private schools as well and believes it should be abolished in all schools.
4 Human Rights Watch interview with Tiffany Bartlett (real name used with consent), Austin, Texas, February 22, 2008 (referring to events in Mississippi).
5 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Catherine V., Washington, DC, November 7, 2007 (referring to a school in the Mississippi Delta).
6 Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651 (1977).
7 The Center for Effective Discipline, Large City School Districts Banning Corporal Punishment, Discipline at School, August 2008, http://www.stophitting.com/disatschool/100largest.php (accessed August 8, 2008) (This site lists the 100 largest school districts in the US, and notes that 94 of them do not use corporal punishment, listing Aldine, Texas as one of the large districts that permits corporal punishment. However, Human Rights Watch has on file email correspondence of July 1, 2008 from Ken Knippel, assistant superintendent of administration in the Aldine, Texas Independent School District, stating that the Aldine ISD currently does not permit corporal punishment.).
8 Corporal punishment is prohibited in: Alaska, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Washington, DC. States permit or prohibit corporal punishment in varying ways: affirmative state legislation, state-wide regulation, consensus of school districts, or silence. Consequently there is some disagreement as to whether 21 or 22 states permit the use of corporal punishment. After analyzing these laws, we take the position that 21 states permit the use of corporal punishment. The Center for Effective Discipline, U.S.: Corporal Punishment and Paddling Statistics by State and Race, States Banning Corporal Punishment, 2008, http://www.stophitting.com/disatschool/statesBanning.php (accessed August 8, 2008).
9 Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, Countdown to universal prohibition: Summary of legality of corporal punishment of children worldwide, April 2008, http://www.endcorporalpunishment.org/pages/progress/countdown.html (accessed August 8, 2008).