Why Are Black Students Facing Corporal Punishment in Public Schools?
“The Way You Were Brought Up”
In addition to citing the Bible and the need to teach children boundaries, defenders of corporal punishment often cite the paddle’s crucial role in their own upbringing. “You can’t easily dismiss the way you were brought up,” says Nathaniel Christian, a minister in Holmes County, who has conflicted feelings about corporal punishment.
Many parents in the county accept paddling as a kind of cultural legacy that should be passed on to their own children. Families who don’t want their children to be paddled in school can sign a form exempting them—an option that some 20 percent of families choose, according to Rucker.
Some parents, however, say they have felt pressured into condoning the paddle. Otherwise, school officials will call them repeatedly, interrupting them at work, and issue suspension after suspension to their children.
Mary Pickett, the parent of a first and a second grader, says she disapproves of corporal punishment because it does little to address the root causes of a child’s misbehavior. She signed the form forbidding the paddling of her children. Not long after, she received a call from her son’s teacher, who said he was “hollering” and that Pickett needed to come pick him up. Arriving at the school, Pickett says administrators tried to “push the issue,” telling her they wouldn’t have to call her so much if she allowed them to use the paddle. “I told the principal, ‘If I allow it, they will beat the hell out of them every day,’” she recalls.
Rucker says that parents who won’t permit paddling and dislike out-of-school suspensions should be willing to come in and sit with their children if they’re constantly interrupting other students’ learning time. “In order to have some means of control, educators are forced to contact parents” in some cases, he says. Rucker adds that district staff members usually do not call parents without provocation.
LaShunkeita Clark, another parent, thought she had decided against corporal punishment and signed the form prohibiting school staffers from striking her 13-year-old daughter. But while she was serving as a substitute teacher at her daughter’s school one day, she realized how hard it is to break from tradition. Her daughter, Ayana, began “cutting up” and misbehaving in front of her mother and other students. Feeling disrespected and embarrassed, Clark’s first instinct was to resort to physical discipline. So she allowed an administrator to strike her daughter that day.
In some Mississippi communities, newcomers who find the idea of paddling children abhorrent can feel pressured to accept the practice. Eight years ago, during Robyn Gulley’s first week teaching second grade in Sunflower as a Teach for America corps member in the Delta, her mentor rapped disobedient students with a ruler and encouraged Gulley to do the same. Gulley, who is white and grew up in Colorado, tried to find alternative ways to reprimand students. She hung a paper clip with each child’s name on it, for instance, and moved down the clips of troublesome students.
Yet when she called the parents of students with chronic behavior problems, they often responded: “Whup ‘em—you just need to wear ‘em out.” And when she brought unruly students to the principal’s office, the administrator told her, “Well, you need to paddle them.” Eventually, she stopped taking students to the office and dealt with the problems as best she could on her own. But Gulley continued to worry that spurning the paddle would be construed as disrespectful. She was one of only a few white teachers in the school; most of her colleagues were experienced educators who had grown up in the community. “If I didn’t do it, the implication was that I thought I was better than them,” Gulley recalls.
During her second year of teaching, Gulley paddled students twice. (The district permitted teachers to paddle students in the main office as long as two witnesses were present, Gulley says.) The first time, she struck a younger student who constantly jumped out of her seat and made rude, taunting comments to classmates. The second time, Gulley paddled students who had been involved in a fight, but only after the principal challenged her to do so.
Gulley, who now teaches at a charter school in New Orleans, says she met several wonderful parents who physically disciplined their children. But she questions the efficacy of the strategy. “The feeling after you paddle a child is terrible,” she says. “You are angry. They are angry. And I do not think it is effective. It’s especially not effective for a white person doing it to a black child in an all-black community.”
Seeking Alternatives to the Paddle
Even some adamant supporters of corporal punishment, like Rucker, do not believe that paddling always works. For some students, Rucker thinks that better counseling and social services are needed.
“But we can’t afford it,” he says, adding that the school receives only enough funding to provide one counselor for every 500 students.
Opponents of corporal punishment say they recognize that they have to present effective alternatives if they hope to change minds. “Something has to go in its place,” says Smith, the college student. She and others at the Nollie Jenkins Family Center have been trying to promote peer mediation, in which students step in to counsel one another through crises and conflicts.
The many ways that corporal punishment has become embedded not only in schools, but in homes and hearts, can make it complicated to attack the practice on the grounds of racial disparity—especially in communities where black leaders and parents may view that attack as an encroachment on their civil rights, not as an enhancement of their children’s. Those who view the paddle partly as preparation for the hard challenges that many poor black children will face in the world as teenagers and adults are not always disposed to regard its banishment as an advance in racial justice.
“There’s a whole part of corporal punishment that’s a reflection of American society, of who we are and where we came from,” says Gulley. “In a lot of ways, we’re stuck.”
Read Next: Tommy Raskin and StudentNation: “The Prevalence of Corporal Punishment in US Schools”