Corporal Punishment in the Public Schools: Both Curious and Alarming

March 2016

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By Tom Vitaglione, Senior FellowNCChild09

The State Board of Education recently received a report that corporal punishment, an antiquated (and now known to be ineffective) method of student discipline once used in all 115 of the state’s local school districts, is currently used by just three districts – Macon, Graham and Robeson. These districts used the practice 146 times during the 2014-2015 school year, a far cry from statewide totals in the thousands not long ago.

Despite this relatively positive report, NC Child still believes a statewide ban on corporal punishment in schools is needed.  Here’s why:

Scenario One: In Robbinsville High School in mountainous Graham County, North Carolina, a teenager (sometimes a teenage girl) bends over and is spanked, either by hand or with a paddle, by the male principal. This is the only public high school in the state where corporal punishment (the sanitized name for school personnel hitting students) takes place.  If you are struggling to get your head around this, so are we.

While this method of discipline is allowed by the district school board, its practice at Robbinsville High is based on a procedure apparently developed by the principal, who makes the decision and actually administers the corporal punishment. He did so 47 times (38 males, 9 females), representing a full 15% of school enrollment) during the 2014-2015 school year.

No other school in Graham uses corporal punishment. Since educators have seen the research indicating that the practice is ineffective academically and potentially harmful socio-emotionally, we wonder about its continued use on teenage boys and girls who are supposedly being prepared for young adulthood at Robbinsville High School.

Scenario Two: In the southeastern county of Robeson, known for many years as the leader in the use of corporal punishment, a certain kind of hitting roulette seems to take place. It starts of course, with some sort of infraction. However, the risk of being hit by school personnel depends on many factors. For example, if you are in middle or high school, you won’t get hit. There is no formal board policy in this regard, but there seems to be tacit agreement that corporal punishment is not effective in older students.

While elementary school students are at risk, if you can make it past third grade, the chance of being hit diminishes dramatically.  And additionally, not every elementary school engages in the practice.  Of the 23 elementary schools in the district, only six used the practice during the 2014-2015 school year. The students at highest risk are those attending Prospect Elementary, where 80% of the corporal punishment took place last year.

The startling result of this roulette during the 2014-2015 school year is that 90% of the corporal punishment was administered to young students who are members of the Lumbee Tribe. There are some who think that this disproportionality is pure happenstance, while others ascribe it to Lumbee cultural tradition. In any case, this curious circumstance needs to be studied, so that the local community can make an informed decision regarding the continued use of corporal punishment. Over the years, the State Board of Education, the local school board, the Commission on Indian Affairs and the Lumbee Tribal Council have been asked to study this issue. No such action has taken place.

There is clearly something wrong with the picture painted by these scenarios. One high school in the entire state that spanks 15% of its school population?  One elementary school in Robeson County which accounts for 80% of corporal punishment incidents in Robeson County? Yet, the three local school boards and the General Assembly remain reluctant to change course, and the Office of the Governor has not responded when requested to take a stand on the issue.

It’s 2016.  It is time for North Carolina to take this final step and ban corporal punishment in schools entirely.  We are almost there.  It is time to protect all of our children from being hit in schools.