BY ARIEL SMILOWITZ In 1837, a very young Henry David Thoreau joined the faculty of a Concord public school in Massachusetts. After a...



In 1837, a very young Henry David Thoreau joined the faculty of a Concord public school in Massachusetts. After a few weeks, the author, abolitionist, and philosopher resigned his teaching position at the school and opened his own grammar school, where he introduced several progressive teaching methods including visits to local shops and nature walks. Thoreau, the epitome of nonconformity and individualism, had quit his position as a teacher because he didn’t believe in corporal punishment. Rather than hit a student, he stood up for what he believed was morally right. You may think that the issue of administering corporal punishment in schools is an issue that would only be relevant during past centuries; indeed, images of students being smacked on the hand with a ruler or paddled by their principals seem extremely outdated and out of place in today’s times. However, corporal punishment is still a very popular method of punishment throughout this country, and is legal in about twenty states, including Florida. The use of corporal punishment in schools is a practice that is largely overlooked, and its physical, psychological, and emotional consequences severely undermine students’ academic and social success.

First, it’s important to note the disproportionate use of corporal punishment on students. In other words, statistics show that the punishment can be racially biased. According to the Department of Education, while African Americans make up 17.1 percent of public school students nationwide, they accounted for 35.6 percent of those who were paddled during the 2006-2007 school year. Furthermore, evidence shows that students with disabilities, including autism and Tourette’s syndrome, are often subjected to corporal punishment as well. This is largely due to the behaviors they exhibit in class, most of which are related to their disabilities. Although inflicting abuse as a form of discipline is terrible enough, the fact that the practice is disproportionately used hampers the educational environment for minorities and children with disabilities, in effect making it harder for those students to reach their full potential.

According to Human Rights Watch, many of the students that are paddled in school often report that they later have problems with fear, depression, and anger, causing some to disengage academically and others to withdraw from school completely. Indeed, several parents, students, and teachers have opened up about their experiences with corporal punishment. For example, one Mississippi teacher said this about the disparities involved: “I’ve heard this said at my school and at other schools: ‘This child should get less whips, it’ll leave marks.’ Students that are dark-skinned, it takes more to let their skin be bruised. Even with all black students, there is an imbalance: darker-skinned students get worse punishment. This really affected me, being a dark-skinned person myself.” Also, a Mississippi student described the effects corporal punishment had him, explaining that it was “humiliating” and “degrading.” This begs the question: why do schools still view corporal punishment as an effective way to discipline their students if their subsequent behavior becomes worse as a result? Not only are these schools inflicting physical pain on those who get paddled, but they are also inflicting psychological terrorism on every student, creating a threatening and violent school atmosphere, a cesspool that will ultimately cause more violence. These schools must realize that they are permanently damaging many of these students and hindering their ability to develop mentally, physically, and socially.

Although it may seem like the students are affected the most, in fact, their parents suffer as well, as they are often placed in a position where they have to choose between their child’s educational advancement and their child’s well-being. Many parents are unable to take legal action and have to resort to withdrawing their children from school altogether, a solution that hardly rectifies the situation. It’s heartbreaking to think about these parents and the choices they have to make, especially because domestic child abuse is illegal. If a parent paddled their child, they’d go to jail, yet it is perfectly acceptable for a teacher or administrator to paddle, whip, and beat a child, sometimes until they require hospitalization for the bruises they inflict. Similarly, this type of punishment promotes child abuse at home, as parents that may see it in schools may think it’s acceptable to do at home.

Corporal punishment in schools should be a distant memory. However, it is very much alive and thriving all over this country. Rather than punish a student with violence, we should be teaching them that violence is not the answer, and that life’s problems cannot be solved with a paddle and a whip. In the end, corporal punishment only promotes the very thing it claims to alleviate, and is significantly impeding upon our ability as a nation to progress and leave our past behind. We must put this grisly tradition behind us and move toward encouraging success in a more peaceful – and ultimately more effective – way.


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