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Students in Cassville, Missouri, returned to school in late August. As kids are bound to do, some of them will misbehave this year. They’ll act out on the bus or cheat on an assignment. They’ll disrupt class, disrespect or defy their teachers, or use inappropriate language. They’ll engage in public displays of affection.

But this year, something will be different. This year, according to a student handbook, all those offenses may lead to corporal punishment — one or more  swats with a wooden paddle, on the buttocks.

Like the vast majority of children nationwide, the nearly 2,000 students at Cassville, in southwestern Missouri, have never had to face the threat of physical force by their school leaders before. The district stopped using the paddle as a form of punishment two decades ago. But the school board voted in June to bring it back.

The decision has grabbed national attention and reignited a debate over whether schools should be allowed to use corporal punishment at all. In the face of criticism, district officials have pointed the finger at parents, saying they requested this change. This strategy of putting the onus on parents is a common one and perpetuates the practice in thousands of public schools, despite evidence that it is harmful for children.

Nineteen states still allow corporal punishment in schools. Credit: Tara García Mathewson/The Hechinger Report

Corporal punishment in schools is still allowed by 19 state governments, thanks to a 1977 Supreme Court ruling that affirmed educators’ right to levy the punishment. Yet in most districts across those 19 states, superintendents choose to ban it themselves. Federal data shows that even in many schools where it’s technically allowed by the district, educators don’t do it.

But a Hechinger Report investigation found that where corporal punishment continues, school leaders routinely point to parents for justification, saying they paddle only kids whose parents approve. In some districts, parents have to jump through notification hoops to opt their children out of corporal punishment. In others, including Cassville’s, parents have to affirmatively opt in. State legislatures don’t tend to require either one in allowing corporal punishment in public schools, but the schools themselves see the value. Deferring to parents offers schools a shield from liability if a child gets bruised or swollen and prevents parents who oppose the practice from campaigning to ban it.

Related: ‘State-sanctioned violence’: Inside one of the thousands of schools that still paddle students

Leaving it up to parents is what Rep. Burgess Owens, a Republican from Utah, advocates. He offered his party’s opening statement in February during a hearing about, among other things, a bill that would ban corporal punishment in all public schools that receive federal money.

“Ultimately, school boards and school officials must work on engaging parents in these important discussions regarding their children’s welfare,” said Owens, the ranking member on the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education. “Parents know what works best for their own children.”

“We know from decades of research that hitting children actually makes their behavior worse over time, not better.”

Elizabeth Gershoff, professor, University of Texas at Austin

However, sometimes parents can be pressured into choosing corporal punishment. Cassville’s student handbooks set up corporal punishment as an alternative to suspension for a number of violations. The second time high schoolers show disrespect or defiance, for example, they face either five days of in-school suspension or one round of corporal punishment.

This choice — between suspension and the paddle — is not unique to Cassville, according to interviews with advocates, parents, educators, researchers and attorneys across five states. When faced with the prospect of having their kids miss class or be paddled by school officials, many parents choose the latter. They say they would rather not have their children miss school, which has academic consequences for kids and can present parents with difficult child care demands.

Opponents of corporal punishment argue that schools should find alternatives to both suspension and corporal punishment as discipline. Neither, after all, has a good track record at improving student behavior, and both come with a range of troubling consequences.

Related: Some kids have returned to in-person learning only to be kicked right back out

Elizabeth Gershoff, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies corporal punishment and frequently speaks out against its use in schools, called the practice ineffective, painful and unfair.

“We know from decades of research that hitting children actually makes their behavior worse over time, not better,” Gershoff said, adding that it also leaves children without the same protections as adults. “If a teacher hit a parent with a board, they would be charged with assault with a weapon, but if that same teacher hit that parent’s child, it is called corporal punishment.”

Yet deference to local control and parental preference has long prevented the U.S. government from joining 135 other countries in prohibiting corporal punishment in schools. In fact, more than 60 countries go even further, prohibiting corporal punishment in the home.

An example of a paddle used in a Mississippi school. Thousands of schools around the country still use corporal punishment on their students. Credit: Tara García Mathewson/The Hechinger Report

Back in Missouri, high schoolers have organized against the new discipline policy, forming a group called Students Against Abusive Policies. They held a rally Aug. 29, holding up signs that read “Stop fighting violence with violence” and “We will not be bullied into silence.”

District officials have said bringing back corporal punishment was among several strategies to address behavior problems.  They did not return a request for comment.

Kalia Miller, 17, is a senior at the high school in Cassville and one of the leaders of the new student group. Her parents didn’t opt her in to corporal punishment, but she doesn’t want it on the table for her peers, either. She sees the kids acting out over and over again, the ones who may face the paddle this year for their behavior, and she says there are obviously underlying issues contributing to their behavior. She wants school leaders to spend their energy addressing those issues rather than hitting students who misbehave.

“Even if it is opt in, we’re still hitting kids,” Kalia said. “And hitting kids doesn’t work. It’s not an effective or constructive form of punishment. It has never worked and it never will, even if it is what parents choose for their own children.”

This story about corporal punishment in Missouri was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a reporter covering inequality and innovation in K-12 education, nationally, and she oversees coverage for Hechinger en Español as the languages editor. She has been writing...

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