• By Morgan Craven, J.D. • October 2023 •
In May 2023, U.S. Representatives Lucy McBath, Suzanne Bonamici, Gwen Moore, Frederica Wilson and Senator Chris Murphy introduced the Protecting our Students in Schools Act, a federal bill to prohibit corporal punishment in schools across the country.
The Protecting Our Students in Schools Act has several major components.
- Prohibits schools that receive federal funding from hitting, paddling or using other forms of physical violence to discipline children.
- Creates a private right of action so that families and students can bring civil lawsuits in state or federal court against school personnel, law enforcement officials and security personnel who violate the law and hit children in school.
- Specifies the investigation and intervention powers of the U.S. Attorney General and the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights when responding to violations of the law.
- Ensures families, state education agencies and local law enforcement entities are notified when a violation of the law occurs and a child is corporally punished in school.
- Requires education agencies to ensure all schools are notified about the prohibition of corporal punishment and to report information to the U.S. Department of Education about school climate practices.
- Creates a grant program for state and local education agencies to support evidence-based programs, like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, that reduce harmful discipline practices and build positive school climates.
Federal Intervention is Critical
In the 2017-18 school year, nearly 70,000 students – some as young as preschool age – were paddled, spanked and hit in their schools (Craven, 2022). Black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately hit and punished, making ending corporal punishment and ensuring robust protections at the federal level a pressing civil rights issue (Craven, 2022).
About 20 states still allow corporal punishment in schools even though mountains of evidence show the practice harms children and school climates in a number of ways. Many of these states have banned corporal punishment in other settings – like juvenile detention centers, foster care facilities, jails and prisons – because of the harm hitting can cause to young people.
Despite the evidence of harm to children, many school districts and states are doubling down on their efforts to cling to outdated forms of violence over the well-being of children in schools.
For example, in 2023 Texas lawmakers voted down a bill that would prohibit corporal punishment in schools. Opponents of the bill emphasized they believed it was important for children to feel fear in schools and cited their religious beliefs to justify protecting a practice that child welfare, pediatric, mental health, educational and legal organizations have repeatedly opposed.* Shortly after the bill was defeated, Principal Jeffery Hogg in Texas’ Overton High School was arrested for hitting a child so hard she suffered injuries that a pediatrician confirmed were consistent with child abuse.
The Facts About Corporal Punishment
Corporal punishment has no pedagogical or instructional value and serves no safety purpose in schools. Physically hurting students has negative impacts on individual students and entire school climates. The unnecessary practice can also compromise the trusting relationships that are critical for school safety.
Corporal punishment hurts students’ academic outcomes. Research shows that corporal punishment in schools can limit the academic achievement and success of the students being punished and the students who see their peers punished (Dupper & Dingus, 2008; Hyman, 1996). Other analyses show negative impacts on cognitive functioning, lower performance on tests and lower grade point averages for students who are hit in their schools (MacKenzie, et al., 2012; American Psychological Association, 2021).
Corporal punishment hurts students physically. The stated purpose of corporal punishment is to physically hurt students and, sadly, this is the only thing the practice does. Students can experience significant physical injury when they are hit, spanked, slapped or paddled, including cuts, bruises and broken bones (Gershoff, et al., 2015).
Corporal punishment can harm students’ mental and emotional well-being. Students who are hit in front of their peers may experience trauma and low self-esteem (Greydanus, et al., 2003). They can be emotionally humiliated, feel unsafe and disempowered, and struggle with life-long depression (Gershoff, 2017). Harsh physical punishment can also lead to other mental health and substance abuse disorders (Afifi, et al., 2017; Afifi, et al., 2012).
Corporal punishment is ineffective and even counterproductive as a discipline or teaching tool. Hitting children does not teach good behavior, it may do the opposite. Research shows that corporal punishment does not improve behaviors, may exacerbate behavioral challenges, and in some cases is used when students are exhibiting completely normal, age-appropriate behaviors (Gershoff, 2018). When schools rely on corporal punishment, they are proven research-based strategies that support students and promote safer school climates.
Corporal punishment teaches violence as a solution. Schools that model violence as a way to address conflict (real or perceived) grant permission for students to use violence, as young people and later as adults. This can compromise interpersonal relationships (Terk, 2010) and perpetuate a culture where physical violence, particularly against people of color and people with disabilities who are disproportionately hit in school, is seen as acceptable.
State-sanctioned violence cannot continue in schools and states. Federal lawmakers and agencies have a responsibility to protect all children from physical harm, and we call on policymakers to immediately:
- Support and pass the Protecting our Students in Schools Act, and
- Enforce civil rights laws that are designed to ensure children of color and students with disabilities are not disproportionately targeted and harmed in their schools.
IDRA urges school districts and states to adopt policies and practices that center the well-being and safety of students.
*The Protecting Our Students in Schools Act is endorsed by:
Advocating 4 Kids, Inc.
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
American Humanist Association
American Psychological Association
American Psychological Association,
American School Counselor Association
American Youth Policy Forum
Autistic Self Advocacy Network
Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law
Center for Learner Equity
Center for Popular Democracy
Children’s Defense Fund
Committee for Children
Council for Exceptional Children
Council of Administrators of Special Education
Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates
Dignity in Schools Campaign
Disability Law Colorado
Education Reform Now
Elite Educational Consulting
Fannie Education Alliance
First Focus Campaign for Children, Girls Inc.
Human Rights Campaign
Ibero American Action League, Inc.
Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA)
Lives in the Balance
Mississippi Coalition to End Corporal Punishment
National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities
National Association of Secondary School Principals
National Association of Social Workers
National Black Child Development Institute (NBCDI)
National Center for Learning Disabilities
National Disability Rights Network (NDRN)
National Down Syndrome Congress
National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers
National Parents Union
National Urban League
National Women’s Law Center
Nollie Jenkins Family Center, Inc.
Open Society Policy Center
Parent Education Organizing Council
Racial Justice NOW
Texas Kids Can’t Wait
The Advocacy Institute
The Arc of the United States
The Education Trust
The Federal School Discipline and Climate Coalition (FedSDC)
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
United Women in Faith
Volunteer State Seal of Biliteracy
Afifi, et al. (2017). Spanking and adult mental health impairment: The case for the designation of spanking as an adverse childhood experience. Child Abuse Negl. 71:24-31
Afifi, T.O., Mota, N.P., Dasiewicz, P., MacMillan, H.L., Jitender, S. (2012). Physical punishment and mental disorders: results from a nationally representative US sample. Pediatrics, 130(2), 184-92.
American Psychological Association. (2021). Corporal Punishment Does Not Belong in Schools. citing Gershoff, E.T., Sattler, K.M.P., & Holden, G.W. (2019). School Corporal Punishment and Its Associations with Achievement and Adjustment. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 63, 1-8.
Craven, M. (2022). Serving All Students – Promoting a Healthier, More Supportive School Environment. Written Testimony Presented to the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Subcommittee.
Dupper, D.R., & Dingus, A.E.M. (2008). Corporal Punishment in U.S. Public Schools: A Continuing Challenge for School Social Workers. National Association of Social Workers, 243-250.
Hyman, I. (1996). Using Research to Change Public Policy: Reflections on 20 Years of Effort to Eliminate Corporal Punishments in Schools. Pediatrics, 98(4), 818-821.
Greydanus, D.E., Pratt, H.D., Spates, C.R., Blake-Dreher, A.E., Greydanus-Gearhart, M.A., & Patel, D.R. (2003). Corporal Punishment in Schools. Journal of Adolescent Health, 32, 385-393.
Gershoff, E.T., Goodman, G.S., Miller-Perrin, C., Holden, G.W., Jackson, Y., & Kazdin, A. (2018). The Strength of the Evidence Against Physical Punishment of Children and Its Implications for Parents, Psychologists, and Policymakers. American Psychologist, 73, 626-638. doi: 10.1037/ amp0000327
Gershoff, E. (2017). School Corporal Punishment in Global Perspective: Prevalence, Outcomes, and Efforts at Intervention. Psychology, Health & Medicine, 22(51), 224-239.
Gershoff, E.T., Purtell, K.M., & Holas, I. (2015). Corporal Punishment in U.S. Public Schools: Legal Precedents, Current Practices, and Future Policy. Advances in Child and Family Policy and Practice (pp. 1-105). doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-14818-2
MacKenzie, M.J., Nicklas, E., Waldfogel, J., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2012). Corporal Punishment and Child Behavioral and Cognitive Outcomes through 5 Years-of-age: Evidence from a Contemporary Urban Birth Cohort Study. Infant and Child Development, 21(1): 3-33.
Terk, J. (July 7, 2010). Corporal Punishment Archives.