Last fall, I started talking to people about school discipline after reading about the behavior challenges educators were describing with the return to in-person learning. I wondered how schools were going to approach exclusionary discipline after the whole country had spent the last year talking about how important it is for students to be in schools. One of the people I spoke with, Cara McClellan, is an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She suggested I look into corporal punishment as part of my research into exclusionary discipline because she had heard of a district in Tennessee asking families to choose between the paddle and suspension. “The options that families are being given are both so unfair and unjust to students that it’s like, is this really a choice?” McClellan told me.
I hadn’t originally planned on writing about corporal punishment. But McClellan piqued my interest. After reading many reports and making many more phone calls, I realized the practice was common, not unique to this district in Tennessee. And my research pulled me to a different community.
My investigation into the continued use of corporal punishment in the U.S., which we published last Monday in partnership with the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, focuses on Collins Elementary School in the Covington County Public Schools in southeastern Mississippi. Collins Elementary stood out in a national dataset for its widespread use of paddling in 2017-18, in a state where paddling is more common and opposition to it is more organized than anywhere else. I’ll let you read the story to learn more about how and why the disciplinary practice remains in Mississippi and 18 other states. Here, I’d like to share other numbers.
The federal government generally collects data about corporal punishment from every school in the country every two years, but due to Covid, the last data we have is still from the 2017-18 school year. The data is often discussed through state or district totals, but a close look at the numbers shows how much of a school-level story corporal punishment is today. The fact is, most schools don’t use it. Fully 96 percent of schools nationwide didn’t log any corporal punishment incidents in 2017-18. Even in districts that allowed it, many school principals chose not to.
That makes for some striking inequality.
In Lee County, Mississippi, Plantersville Middle School used corporal punishment on more than 40 percent of its students and two other schools used it on more than 20 percent. Yet four schools in the district didn’t use it on anyone. In Pontotoc County, the dividing line was geographical. The elementary, middle and high school on the south side of the district all used it, while three out of four schools on the north side didn’t.
Gender and racial inequality also bubble up in the data. Eight out of 10 students paddled that year, nationwide, were boys. White boys were paddled more than any other subgroup.Black students, though, were disproportionately represented. In 2017-18, 36 percent of students paddled were Black, while that group made up just 15 percent of the total student population.
Outside of Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas and Alabama top the nation in use of corporal punishment. A close look at those states shows how frequently students with disabilities get hit. Across the three states, 59 schools used corporal punishment on 20 percent or more of their students in 2017-18; 105 used it on the same proportion of their students with disabilities. Two schools used corporal punishment on 50 percent or more of their entire student body; eight hit that threshold among students with disabilities.
The next federal dataset, expected sometime next year, will show just how many schools kept paddling students during the pandemic’s most interrupted school year. In Mississippi, where I requested state data, and in Arkansas, where the data is available online, I already know hundreds of schools did. But as I report in my story, maybe that won’t be true for long.
This story about corporal punishment was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.