Regulations in states that permit corporal punishment do not adequately protect children from abusive disciplinary measures in school or offer necessary support for alternative methods of discipline.
Mississippi law does not affirmatively call for corporal punishment in schools; rather, it states that such treatment does not constitute negligence or child abuse.380 Likewise, there is no Texas law affirmatively granting school districts authority to use corporal punishment; policies regarding discipline and control of students are left to individual districts. Provisions in both Mississippi and Texas law provide for governmental immunity from civil and criminal liability in corporal punishment cases.381
Both states recognize that corporal punishment is inappropriate for children in contexts other than the public schools. Texas law prohibits corporal punishment against youth in correctional facilities,382 in residential treatment centers,383 and for children in the custody of the Department of Family and Protective Services.384 Mississippi prohibits corporal punishment by foster parents,385 and by school bus drivers.386 Mississippi does have a provision requiring schools to adopt evidence-based practices and positive behavioral interventions in addressing student discipline.387 This is a positive first step by the state, and should be followed with prohibition of corporal punishment in public schools.
While most states do offer extensive teacher training, not all train their teachers in appropriate, non-violent disciplinary practices.388 One administrator felt that teachers at his middle school resorted to paddling far too fast, having little or no training on alternative measures of discipline.389 A superintendent in east Mississippi felt that paddling was something that people just knew how to do, and that teachers dont need to be trained on how to use a paddle.390 One parent interviewed by Human Rights Watch had serious concerns about the lack of training: What are the guidelines? Who is trained? Anybody can just grab my child at school?391
In some instances, teachers and administrators who object to the use of corporal punishment find themselves without recourse or alternative resources. One teacher in a district that does not permit corporal punishment did not know what to do after he witnessed an incident of paddling on a school bus, and was asked to keep the incident to himself: One of the coaches explained to me very tersely that word of this incident should not leave the bus. This sort of cowboy justice preempting my discomfort and my whistle blowing . [The incident] never resurfaced. I wouldnt know who to take it to. So much, I regret it. I feel guilty.392
Teachers who have students who seriously misbehave sometimes find they have exhausted in-class remedies but do not want to send the child to the office as they know the child will be beaten there.393 One teacher noted that she had a new vice principal halfway through her first year: He used corporal punishment a lot more than the other teachers. I didnt want to send my kids to him; I wouldnt send my kids to him.394 Another teacher said he got the message that in this culture, we establish order through corporal punishment, and until you do it, you wont get respect.395
Some teachers, reluctant to endorse corporal punishment, lacked alternative resources for dealing with particularly difficult students. One teacher described the dilemma: I only sent kids to the office if they were so out of hand I couldnt handle it. I didnt want to send them to get paddled. I tried to handle it within my own classroom. But I didnt have the option of requesting a different form of punishment.396 Another teacher described what happened when she exhausted her options:
Ralph McLaney, a veteran teacher, became the assistant principal at Carver Middle School in Meridian, Mississippi, in Fall 2003. Soon, Mr. McLaney was receiving 19-23 paddling referrals of children to his office every day. In schools where he had worked previously, paddling was rarely used. He noted, In Meridian, though, it was clear that most teachers resorted to paddling pretty fast. If the kid said anything they didnt like, they were sent to the disciplinary office I would end up with a backlog of students in my disciplinary office. The principal would pull them out, and whack em . We were supposed to have a witness, but the principal didnt have that.
Mr. McLaney grew increasingly uncomfortable, in part because of the racial disparity between the majority African-American student body and the largely white staff: I realized I did not want to be an overseer on an educational plantation. He tried to contact parents to discuss options, but it was hard to contact them, phones might be disconnected. If I did get a hold of them, the parents would often just authorize the procedure, or say just beat that boys butt. The teachers felt if I wasnt hitting the kids, something was wrong. They felt I wasnt backing them up, it was that kind of mentality . To have earned a second masters degree, to have that lead to a position where the primary activity of each day would be hitting children, now, thats ludicrous.
He sought legal advice from a local chapter of the National Education Association (NEA) where he was warned of the risks of insubordination. They told me that to refuse to hit a child at the direction of my supervisor, Id be fired for it . I ended up resigning, at the time, the pressure, and the whole bit.398 I have some regret, sometimes I think I should have blown the thing open instead of resigning.399 In the aftermath of this whole thing, I finally contacted the NEAs national headquartersand they were shockedbut this was after the fact. He concludes, This period has been one of the most negative experiences of my life.400
In many school districts, parents are given ways to opt out of the use of corporal punishment on their children,401 but those mechanisms are hard to access and difficult to enforce. In some cases, parents preferences are ignored and the student is beaten anyway; the parents may then be without redress. Even if the child is not beaten, he or she is still aware of the violence meted out against his or her peers.
Parents say they choose to opt out for fear that corporal punishment will injure their children or because they do not think anybody should be hitting anybody elses children. There are too many variables. You dont know their intent, their temperament.402 Parents mistrusted the ability of teachers and administrators to regulate their decisions to resort to corporal punishment or to moderate the levels of violence used. One former Mississippi teacher explained, There were a couple of parents that didnt want their kids to get corporal punishment; it wasnt that they were against corporal punishment but that they were distrustful of how the school was using it.403
If a school district has a policy for opting outand not all school districts dothe policy usually falls into one of three categories. First, in some districts, all parents must sign a yes or no form, specifying whether or not their child can receive corporal punishment. If the form is not returned, corporal punishment is typically not administered. One superintendent in a small Mississippi district noted that in this situation, the principals usually would speak with the parent before administering corporal punishment.404
The second way of expressing preference starts from an assumption that all students will receive corporal punishment. Those who do not want their child to be punished opt out by submitting a form to the school or by writing a letter. In the Midland Independent School District in west Texas, for instance, the policy specifies that [c]orporal punishment shall not be used in instances where the students parent or guardian has filed a written statement with the school principal indicating that the parent does not approve of corporal punishment. These written statements should be in the form of a letter, mailed or delivered to the school principal, and submitted annually.405 In very limited cases, parents may express their preferences orally. A former Mississippi elementary school teacher explained that on the first day of school, the parents could tell the teacher if they did not want their children to be hit: Not a lot [of parents] would come and articulate that, but some.406
Third, in Texas in particular, some districts have policies under which parents are called after the infraction but before corporal punishment is administered. In the Tyler Independent School District in Texas, for instance, a parent or legal guardian of the student must be contacted and approve of the use of corporal punishment prior to each administration.407 One recent graduate noted that at her high school, parents could choosetheyd have the principal call your house and decide on swats.408 We spoke with only one interviewee in Mississippi who reported a scheme in which parents could elect to be called before punishment was administered.409
Some school districts do not provide any mention of opt-out methods or parental notification in their official policies or student handbooks. For example, among districts we investigated, Texas school districts Rosebud-Lott, Quinlan, Marshall, and Paris contain no description of opt-out policies.410 Likewise, the policies of Pearl Public School District in Mississippi do not give information on opting out.411
Some parents feel the opt-out methods are underpublicized and difficult to comply with. One Texas mother told us that she turned [an opt-out form] in this year, but not last year because I wasnt aware of it and its kind of hidden.412 A former teacher in rural Mississippi was not surprised that parents lacked information on how to opt out: Parents had a page the student would take home. If the student didnt bring it back, then they didnt opt out. I dont know if the students ever showed their parents or not.413 A Texas parent whose middle school son had been beaten felt the burden on parents was unnecessarily high: Only if you read the handbook do you find out that the school administers corporal punishment, and then you have to re-write a letter each year and say that you are opposed to it.414 A former administrator in Meridian, Mississippi, reported to Human Rights Watch that parents felt coerced into signing forms authorizing paddling because, if they did not, their children were more likely to be threatened with expulsion should disciplinary problems emerge.415
In addition, parents of special education students have had to fight repeatedly to opt out of corporal punishment for their children. Each special education student has a yearly Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that is devised by the parents, teachers, and administrators; this IEP includes a discipline plan. Parents in Mississippi described problems having corporal punishment expressly prohibited in the IEP. Beverly Shields, a northeast Mississippi mother of an autistic boy who is now 16, stated that she had to forcibly have this [a ban on corporal punishment] put in his IEP, because corporal punishment to an autistic person is just not acceptable in any fashion. He wouldnt know why they were doing it.416 Her older boys had been paddled in a different Mississippi school district in violation of her opt-out forms:
She noted that another advantage of fighting to get a ban on corporal punishment placed in the IEP is that, unlike with the opt-out forms in her district, the ban does not have to be renewed every year.418
Johnny McPhail, the father of the autistic girl in north Mississippi, also had difficulties securing appropriate discipline for his daughter. At an IEP meeting during his daughters second-grade year, the school sought permission to paddle her. They wanted to paddle her because she was having tantrums in class. They were from the old school, [meaning] if you cry, theyll whip your butt.419 McPhail felt strongly that the school board, the officials in charge of writing the school discipline policy in his district, knew nothing about behavioral issues for students with disabilities.420
Several parents reported to Human Rights Watch that their expressed preferences were ignored, and that their children were paddled in violation of written or verbal opt outs. For instance, Janet Y., a mother in rural Mississippi, filed opt-out forms every year subsequent to the sixth grade, when her daughter was paddled and bruised. Janet renewed the no-paddle request in twelfth grade, but her daughter was subsequently paddled, by the same perpetrator, for disrespect.421 The girl was once again seriously bruised, and was taken to receive medical care.422
A seventh-grade boy in rural west Texas was paddled even though his mother had followed school procedure by submitting a letter stating her opposition to paddling at the beginning of the school year. She commented, I made it a point to do this each year, and they didnt even check the files. They automatically smacked him without checking the files.423 A 10-year-old boy with diagnosed ADHD in rural east Texas received two blows for horse-playing in September 2007. His mother maintains that she had two in-person conversations with his principal in the weeks prior to her sons paddling, expressing her opposition to corporal punishment.424
One former elementary school teacher in rural Mississippi noted that students were discouraged from enforcing their parents preferences:
One high school girl in Mississippi tried to assert her right not to be paddled when her principal was swinging his paddle to threaten her: I told him that my mom opted out, and he said I was trying to be smart-ass. He said, I see you standing on your soapbox this morning, bitch.426
Even students whose parents no-paddle preferences were honored find themselves in a coercive environment. A sixth-grade boy on the opt-out list came home crying basically scared to death after his principal threatened the school with paddling during an assembly.427 A mother of a nine-year-old and a 12-year-old noted that I always say no on the forms but its always there in the school, and even in the classrooms.428
It is a recognized principle of human rights that children, by reason of their physical and mental immaturity, are exceptionally vulnerable and therefore in need of special safeguards and legal protections.429 Likewise, parents have a duty to facilitate their childrens exercise of their fundamental rights.430 The parents discussed above were explicitly trying to ensure their childrens rights were respected. When schools paddle a student in violation of parental preferences, they not only impinge on the childs fundamental rights, they directly contradict parents attempts to protect the best interest of their own children to be free from humiliating and degrading treatment.
380 Miss. Code Ann. Section 37-11-57. Compare with Arkansas law, which specifically permits the use of corporal punishment, Ark. Code Ann 6-18.
381 Tex. Educ. Code Section 37.102, Tex. Penal Code Section 9.62; Mississippi Torts Claims Act, Miss. Code Ann. Section 11-46-7 and Miss. Code Ann. Section 11-46-9(1)(x).
382 37 Tex. Admin. Code Section 95.1.
383 40 Tex. Admin. Code Section 748.2303.
384 40 Tex. Admin. Code Section 749.1003.
385 2007 MS Reg Text 112699.
386 Mississippi State Department of Education, Instructor's Guide for Training School Bus Drivers, http://www.healthyschoolsms.org/healthy_school_environment/documents/instructorguide.pdf (accessed August 8, 2008), p. 10.
387 Miss. Code Ann. Section 37-11-54.
388 While corporal punishment is prohibited under international law, the Committee on the Rights of the Child permits the use of restraint in exceptional circumstances, noting that detailed guidance and training is also required, both to minimize the necessity to use restraint and to ensure that any methods used are safe and proportionate to the situation and do not involve the deliberate infliction of pain as a form of control. UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment 8, para 15.
389 Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with Ralph McLaney (real name used with consent), Alabama, October 26, 2007 and November 6, 2007.
390 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with a superintendent of a small district in east Mississippi, April 14, 2008.
391 Human Rights Watch interview with Michelle R., Hinds County, Mississippi, December 8, 2007.
392 Human Rights Watch interview with Joseph O., Mississippi, December 5, 2007.
393 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Catherine V., former teacher in the Mississippi Delta, Washington, DC, November 7, 2007; Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Charlotte M., former teacher in the Mississippi Delta, New Haven, Connecticut, November 16, 2007.
394 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Catherine V., former teacher in the Mississippi Delta, Washington, DC, November 7, 2007.
395 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.
396 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Paula H., former high school teacher in the Mississippi Delta, currently based in Illinois, January 17, 2008.
397 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Charlotte M., former teacher in the Mississippi Delta, New Haven, Connecticut, November 16, 2007.
398 Georgia E. Frye, Carvers former assistant principal condemns paddling, Meridian Star, March 25, 2004 (describing Mr. McLaneys resignation).
399 Dobbs, US Students Still Getting the Paddle, Washington Post (discussing how McLaney resigned when it became clear to him that the alternative was to be fired for insubordination).
400 Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with Ralph McLaney (real name used with consent), Alabama, October 26, 2007 and November 6, 2007.
401 Human Rights Watch was unable to obtain reliable statistics on the number of parents who chose to opt out of corporal punishment. One district, the Greenville Public School District in Mississippi, estimated that 30 percent of parents chose to opt out. Greenville Public School District, Corporal Punishment Survey, May 22, 2008, on file with Human Rights Watch.
402 Human Rights Watch interview with Janet Y., Mississippi, December 11, 2007.
403 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Louise P., Chicago, Illinois, November 19, 2007 (interviewed in the presence of a family member).
404 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with a superintendent of a small district in east Mississippi, April 14, 2008.
405 Midland Independent School District, Student-Parent Handbook, 2007-2008, on file with Human Rights Watch, p. 36.
406 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Catherine V., Washington, DC, November 7, 2007.
407 Tyler Independent School District, Student Discipline, November 21, 2005, on file with Human Rights Watch, p. 2.
408 Human Rights Watch interview with Kristin S., Midland, Texas, February 25, 2008 (referring to events in Midland Independent School District).
409 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Charlotte M., New Haven, Connecticut, November 16, 2007.
410 Rosebud-Lott Independent School District, Rosebud-Lott Student Handbook, 2006-2007; Rosebud-Lott Independent School District, Rosebud-Lott Student Code of Conduct, August 16, 2005; Quinlan Independent School District, Student Handbook, 2007-2008; Quinlan Independent School District, Student Code of Conduct, 2007-2008; Marshall Independent School District, Student Code of Conduct, July 18, 2006; Paris Independent School District, Discipline Management Plan and Student Code of Conduct, August 2007, all on file with Human Rights Watch.
411 Pearl Public School District, Pearl High School, Student Handbook, Grades 9-12, 2007-2008, http://www.pearl.k12.ms.us/news/downloads/StudentHandbook2007.pdf (accessed August 8, 2008).
412 Human Rights Watch interview with Mary Schwartz (real name used with consent), Alpine, Texas, February 24, 2008.
413 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Paula H., Illinois, January 17, 2008.
414 Human Rights Watch interview with Leah F., rural west Texas, February 23, 2008.
415 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ralph McLaney (real name used with consent), Alabama, October 26, 2007.
416 Human Rights Watch interview with Beverly Shields (real name used with consent), Cumberland, Mississippi, December 11, 2007.
419 Human Rights Watch interview with Johnny McPhail (real name used with consent), Oxford, Mississippi, December 14, 2007.
421 Human Rights Watch interview with Janet Y., Mississippi, December 11, 2007.
422 Chart Document, The Womens Group of [name of location withheld], March 22, 2007, on file with Human Rights Watch (noting large area of bruising on both hips consistent with paddle trauma. Tender to touch.).
423 Human Rights Watch interview with Leah F., rural west Texas, February 23, 2008.
424 Human Rights Watch interview with Andrea N., rural east Texas, February 28, 2008.
425 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.
426 Human Rights Watch interview with Abrea T., who recently left high school, rural Mississippi, December 10, 2007.
427 Human Rights Watch group interview with two parents, Hinds County, Mississippi, December 8, 2007.
428 Human Rights Watch interview with Sharrie L., Indianola, Mississippi, December 4, 2007.
429 Convention on the Rights of the Child, preamble (Bearing in mind that, as indicated in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection[.]).
430 Ibid., art. 5 (States Parties shall respect the responsibilities, rights, and duties of parents or, where applicable, the members of the extended family or community as provided for by the local custom, legal guardians or other persons legally responsible for the child, to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of the rights recognized in the present Convention.).