VII. Best Practices in School Discipline

Corporal punishment should be abolished not only because it causes pain, injury, humiliation, and anger, and not only because it is contrary to international law and evolving US standards. It should be abolished because it is an ineffective form of school discipline. Better, proven methods of discipline are available.

Best practices for school discipline, as discussed below, focus on creating inclusive, consistent school cultures in which misbehavior has clear and immediate consequences but students are valued and respected. By using corporal punishment, educators debase the school culture, emphasizing humiliation of students and use of violence above positive, reinforcing discipline.

Positive Disciplinary Approaches

There are many alternatives to corporal punishment that respond better to students’ educational and psychological needs.271 With today’s educators facing increasing pressure to improve student achievement and reduce drop-out rates,272 the creation of nurturing school environments in which students can meet and exceed academic targets is a critically important issue.

The National Education Association opposes corporal punishment in schools, recommending instead disciplinary procedures that “enhance high expectations and quality instruction, thereby promoting self-control and responsible behavior in students.”273 A government study conducted in the United Kingdom shortly after corporal punishment was banned found little evidence that corporal punishment was an effective deterrent, and concluded that “[t]he best way to encourage good standards of behavior in a school is a clear code of conduct backed by a combination of rewards and punishments within a positive community atmosphere.”274 Even traditional methods such as detention of children (in classrooms or study halls, for example) or removal of privileges are preferable to corporal punishment in respecting students’ rights and responding effectively to discipline problems.

Nationwide, educators are moving toward positive discipline practices—those that respond to the underlying reasons for the child’s misbehavior, and are consistent with the school’s mission of education275—as a way of creating effective school cultures.276 Within this structured environment, children can learn to change their behavior and return to class ready to learn.277

In 2000, the US Department of Education and US Department of Justice produced a joint guide on school discipline and school safety, aimed at addressing “violence and other troubling behaviors in schools.”278 The guide, which is supported by numerous national educational organizations including the American Federation of Teachers,279 endorses Positive Behavior Support (PBS) systems as a way of providing “a social and physical environment that fosters appropriate behavior.”280 Critical components include establishing school-wide behavioral expectations, creating incentives for appropriate behavior, and ensuring that there are consequences for inappropriate behavior.281 Responses to misbehavior include: “An explanation of why the behavior is a problem, an explanation of which rule was violated, and the provision of opportunities to learn appropriate behaviors and to correct mistakes.”282 An administrator at a new school in a high-poverty area observed that in his personal experience, incorporating school discipline as an integral part of the school’s mission statement is very effective: “It’s always good practice to be clear with the kids as to what the rules of the class are, and how they will be rewarded or punished.”283

In 46 states around the US, there are schools currently using the School-Wide Positive Behavior Support (PBS) model, implementing three levels of positive behavior supports:284

  • Universal: rules, routines, and physical arrangements for all students developed to prevent initial problem behavior;
  • Secondary: small group or individual responses for students at risk of problem behaviors, such as mentoring programs and staff support teams for students; and
  • Tertiary: more intensive interventions tailored to meet the specific needs of individual students with patterns of problem behaviors.

Formal evaluations of School-Wide PBS have found significant reductions in discipline referrals to the principal’s office and increased satisfaction among teachers because they feel more effective in their teaching and management of student behavior.285 Furthermore, studies in Illinois have shown that School-Wide PBS can also improve the academic performance and test scores of students.286

A Harvard University study in 2000 concluded that schools can implement a wide range of programs to bring about positive discipline models, “including peer courts, conflict resolution programs, early interventions, mentoring, mediations, and character education programs that promote a mutually respectful and collaborative school climate and teach students and teachers how to handle and resolve conflict in appropriate ways.”287

One high-poverty elementary school in Chicago, for example, was able to drastically reduce its suspension rate and increase its attendance and reading achievements after incorporating positive discipline.288 The school posts a clear series of rules and consequences around the school, and a copy must be signed by parents, who are encouraged to become an integral part of the school culture. Supervised study halls are used in place of almost all out-of-school suspension. This is just one of many examples of how positive discipline can help students succeed. These methods can also be successful in rural schools with mentoring, school-wide commitment, and professional development for teachers.289

Educational experts have also turned to positive discipline models as a way of redressing racial and special education disparities in school discipline. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) encourages the use of positive behavior support systems to respond better to the needs of students with disabilities.290

Likewise, positive behavior support systems can respond to racial disparities. A Justice Matters Institute report from the year 2000 on preventing racial bias in school discipline observes that effective schools, “rather than striving to shape students’ behavior solely through a discipline policy … create a community based on the mission or guiding principles, shaping the larger context of relationships which, in turn, influence student behavior.”291 Again, discipline and school culture are seen as integral in effective schools: “This comprehensive approach proves far more effective than relying on a discipline policy alone to guide student behavior.”292

Corporal punishment has no place in these positive discipline structures. When the Jackson, Mississippi, public schools banned corporal punishment in 1990, the school board’s decision was “intended to maintain a sound, productive, healthy and safe environment in the schools.”293 School districts need to follow Jackson’s lead by discarding corporal punishment and embracing positive discipline methods, and Jackson must continue to present itself as a leader on this issue.

Educators’ Views on Corporal Punishment

Many educators we spoke with said that corporal punishment is ineffective in addressing students’ underlying misbehavior.294 A middle school teacher stated, “I’ve seen its ineffectiveness—the immediate impact is to get that student to stop that behavior but there is no guarantee that it [won’t] continue.”295 A superintendent in Mississippi believes it is pointless: “You administer corporal punishment, it’s over in two minutes. Children, depending on their age, have a very short memory.”296 A former principal and assistant superintendent noted that corporal punishment “is not a cure-all, it’s like putting a band-aid on a broken leg.”297

Educators we spoke with believe that some students become immune to paddling. A former high school teacher in a school that used corporal punishment regularly felt the practice became like “water off the duck’s back for the kids.”298 Another teacher said that “kids who get whupped a lot, they stop responding relatively quickly…. It doesn’t address their core issues.”299 An eleventh-grade boy added that “[s]o many kids are so used to getting paddled that it really don’t faze them at all.”300

Some educators support corporal punishment in schools, even though research demonstrates that it is ineffective in addressing student misbehavior. One teacher pointed out that corporal punishment can be considered “cost-effective. It’s free, basically. You don’t have to be organized. All you need is a paddle.”301 Some parents and teachers think corporal punishment is preferable to keeping children out of class and letting them fall further behind in their studies.302 Others believe that corporal punishment “in moderation” is not harmful, especially if the educator believes the punishment will benefit the child.303 The Greenville Public School District (Mississippi), in answering a Human Rights Watch survey, stated that corporal punishment can help the school environment because it is immediate, but can also damage the environment as students become accustomed to negative reinforcement.304

Some proponents of corporal punishment argue that the Old Testament references to “spare the rod, spoil the child” give support for corporal punishment.305 Yet, many religious leaders disagree, including Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu who responds, “Violence begets violence, and [through corporal punishment] we shall reap a whirlwind. Children can be disciplined without violence that instills fear and misery, and I look forward to church communities working in solidarity with others … towards ending all forms of violence against children.”306 The United Methodist Church is one major US denomination that condemns corporal punishment, arguing that “it is difficult to imagine Jesus of Nazareth condoning any action that is intended to hurt children physically or psychologically.”307

Corporal punishment also negates a child’s capacity to respond to reason. The Society for Adolescent Medicine argues that corporal punishment may respond more to the teacher’s needs than to the child’s, and is likely to be administered under conditions of emotional distress on the part of the teacher (triggered by the misbehavior of the child).308 Corporal punishment may make the teacher “feel better,” and that may serve as a principal justification for using the technique.309 Self-control on the part of the teacher and strategies to reason with students would be more effective and beneficial. One recent high school graduate argued that reason would work better for older students: “It’s not fair, getting licks. There are other ways to discipline children besides hitting them…. My brain is in my head, not in my butt.”310

In some school districts in Mississippi, logistical or financial obstacles prevented the use of after-school detention as an alternative punishment, thereby increasing the use of corporal punishment. One 18-year-old who was critical of the corporal punishment regime in his rural school district stated that “we couldn’t have after-school detention. There was no busing. Kids who got detention would have to find another way home.”311 A teacher noted that corporal punishment was used heavily at her school, and teachers had few alternatives: “There was no ISS or anything. We had lunch duty so we couldn’t bring them in during lunch.”312 Mr. G., as a new teacher, tried to institute detention at his Mississippi middle school:

I knew that I was not going to paddle, so in the first year, I asked my principal if I could hold after-school detention … it did not work at all. Parents had to come get their own kids—there was no bus so you had parents who objected. They would say, “I’m not picking them up, I’m not taking off work, I’m not using the gas.”313

Positive behavior support systems, as well as other more traditional methods, can be effective alternatives to corporal punishment. The superintendent of a major Mississippi school district noted that "[c]hildren will correct themselves if you engage in positive reinforcement.”314 Mr. G. believes that with the right resources, his school could find effective alternatives to corporal punishment.315

271 “Corporal Punishment in Schools: Position Paper of the Society for Adolescent Medicine,” Journal of Adolescent Health, p. 390 (discussing alternatives to corporal punishment).

272 See, for example, Sam Dillon, “States’ Inflated Data Obscure How Few Finish High School,” The New York Times, March 20, 2008 (asserting that Mississippi, like other states, uses an inflated graduation rate for federal reporting requirements and is under pressure to establish better goals for improving graduation rates).

273 National Education Association, “2006-2007 NEA Resolutions,” Resolution B-59: Discipline, (accessed August 8, 2008), p. 30 (adopted at the 2007 NEA Rep. Assembly).

274 Lord Elton, Committee of Enquiry into Discipline in Schools, UK Secretary of State for Education and Science, Enquiry into Discipline in Schools (London: 1989), p. 63, para. 50. For additional discussion, see Lord Elton, Enquiry into Discipline in Schools, p. 41 (giving specific examples of good classroom management, including knowing pupils as individuals, planning and organizing the classroom, emphasizing positive behavior as well as good work, and making sparing and consistent use of reprimands and punishments).

275 US Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, “School-Wide PBS,” (accessed August 8, 2008) (giving definitions and details of positive behavior support (PBS)).

276 Major school districts have initiated such changes. For examples, see Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), “Discipline Foundation Policy: School-Wide Positive Behavior Support,” March 27, 2007, (accessed August 8, 2008) (requiring every school in the district to adopt and implement a school-wide positive behavior support discipline plan); Kentucky General Assembly, “Legislative Declaration on Goals for Commonwealth’s Schools—Model Curriculum Framework,” July 14, 2000, (accessed August 8, 2008) (providing a framework for schools to incorporate character education into curriculum to eliminate barriers to achievement); “Chicago Public Schools Policy Manual: Student Code of Conduct for the Chicago Public Schools for the 2007-2008 School Year,” June 27, 2007, Section 705.5, (accessed August 8, 2008) (revising the “Student Code of Conduct” to reflect a comprehensive approach to student discipline and including components of restorative justice, alternatives to out-of-school suspension, and other measures aimed at creating a safe and positive environment for students and school personnel).

277 US Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, “Safeguarding our Children: An Action Guide,” April 21, 2000, (accessed August 8, 2008), p. 12 (noting that positive discipline is based on three important characteristics: “[a]n explanation of why the behavior is a problem, an explanation of which rule was violated, and the provision of opportunities to learn appropriate behaviors and to correct mistakes”).

278 Ibid., p. 1.

279 This guide is supported by the American Association of School Administrators, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Psychiatric Association, the American School Counselor Association, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the Council of Administrators of Special Education, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Education Association, the National PTA, and the National School Boards Association, among others. US Department of Education, “Safeguarding our Children: An Action Guide,” inside front cover.

280 Ibid., p. 11.

281 Ibid.

282 Ibid., p. 12.

283 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Morgan Barth (real name used with consent), former teacher in an Arkansas district that uses corporal punishment, and current academic dean at Elm City College Prep, New Haven, Connecticut, November 7, 2007 (“We have very high expectations for student behavior, we spend a great deal of time thinking about school culture … this encompasses a feeling that everyone will work hard to climb the mountain to college.”).

284 OSEP, “School-Wide PBS.”

285 US Department of Education, “Safeguarding our Children: An Action Guide,” p. 13.

286 Illinois Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports Network, “2005-06 Progress Report,” February 2007, (accessed June 24, 2008), p. 33.

287 Harvard University Civil Rights Project, “Opportunities Suspended: The Devastating Consequences of Zero Tolerance and School Discipline,” June 2000, (accessed July 19, 2008), p. 32.

288 Ibid., pp. 33-34.

289 Nedra Skaggs Wheeler and Alice Glover Anderson, “Creating Classrooms in Rural Settings that Prevent Discipline Problems,” Annual National Conference Proceedings of the American Council on Rural Special Education, March 2002, (accessed August 8, 2008).

290 Southern Poverty Law Center, Mississippi Youth Justice Project, “Effective Discipline for Student Success: Reducing Student and Teacher Dropout Rates in Mississippi,” 2008, (accessed August 8, 2008), p. 7.

291 Justice Matters Institute, “Turning To Each Other, Not On Each Other: How School Communities Prevent Racial Bias in School Discipline,” 2000, p. 38.

292 Ibid.

293 Jackson Public School Board Meeting Minutes, July 16, 1990, on file with Human Rights Watch.

294 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Paula H., former high school teacher in the Mississippi Delta, currently based in Illinois, January 17, 2008 (“I just knew it wasn’t an effective form of discipline; it didn’t help me at all in the classroom as a teacher, and I don’t like children being hit.”); “Corporal Punishment in Schools: Position Paper of the Society for Adolescent Medicine,” Journal of Adolescent Health, p. 388 (“No clear evidence exists that such punishment leads to better control in the classroom…. Physically punishing children has never been shown to enhance moral character development, increase the students’ respect for teachers or other authority figures in general, intensify the teacher’s control in class, or even protect the teacher.”).

295 Human Rights Watch interview with Brad G., middle school teacher, Mississippi Delta, December 12, 2007.

296 Human Rights Watch interview with a superintendent of a mid-sized urban district in the Mississippi Delta, December 12, 2007.

297 Human Rights Watch interview with Tasha R., Jackson, Mississippi, December 7, 2007.

298 Human Rights Watch interview with Elizabeth Savage (real name used with consent), former teacher in the Mississippi Delta, New Orleans, Louisiana, December 9, 2007.

299 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Chris Myers Asch (real name used with consent), a former elementary school teacher in the Mississippi Delta, Washington, DC, December 19, 2007.

300 Human Rights Watch interview with Wade M., Jackson, Mississippi, December 7, 2007.

301 Human Rights Watch interview with Elizabeth Savage (real name used with consent), former teacher in the Mississippi Delta, New Orleans, Louisiana, December 9, 2007.

302 Human Rights Watch interview with superintendent of a mid-sized urban district in the Mississippi Delta, December 12, 2007 (“The parent would say ‘I prefer my child to be in class rather than in [in-school suspension] so why don’t you paddle him.’”); For further discussion, see Michael Dobbs, “US Students Still Getting the Paddle: Corporal Punishment Laws Often Reflect Regional Chasms,” Washington Post, February 21, 2004.

303 Murray Straus, University of New Hampshire, “Demystifying the Defenses of Corporal Punishment,” 2001, (accessed July 19, 2008) (giving an overview of common arguments in support of corporal punishment, in the context of a discussion of corporal punishment by parents); Gershoff, “Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associated Child Behaviors and Experiences,” Psychological Bulletin, p. 541 (reviewing psychological studies on corporal punishment in the home and its effects on immediate compliance and moral internalization).

304 Greenville Public School District, “Corporal Punishment Survey,” May 22, 2008, on file with Human Rights Watch.

305 Dobbs, “US Students Still Getting the Paddle,” Washington Post.

306 The Most Reverend Desmond M. Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus, cited in Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, Ending Legalized Violence against Children (Global Report 2007): Following up the UN Secretary-General’s Study on Violence against Children (Global Initiative: London, 2007), p. 3.

307 The United Methodist Church, “Policies Adopted by the United Methodist Church General Conference 5/04: Corporal Punishment by Parents and Caretakers,” 2004, (accessed August 8, 2008).

308 “Corporal Punishment in Schools: Position Paper of the Society for Adolescent Medicine,” Journal of Adolescent Health, p. 389.

309 Ibid.

310 Human Rights Watch interview with Peter E., Beaumont, Texas, February 19, 2008.

311 Human Rights Watch interview with Sean D., Oxford, Mississippi, December 14, 2007 (referring to a school district in the Mississippi Delta).

312 Human Rights Watch interview with Lisa P., a former teacher in the Mississippi Delta, Austin, Texas, February 22, 2008.

313 Human Rights Watch interview with Brad G., Mississippi Delta, December 12, 2007.

314 Human Rights Watch interview with a superintendent of a mid-sized urban district in the Mississippi Delta, December 12, 2007.

315 Human Rights Watch interview with Brad G., Mississippi Delta, December 12, 2007.