Why Are Black Students Facing Corporal Punishment in Public Schools?
Students in this central Mississippi town quickly learn that even seemingly minor transgressions can bring down the weight of the paddle. Seventh grader Steven Burns recounts getting smacked with it for wearing the wrong color shirt; Jacoby Blue, 12, for failing to finish her homework on time; and Curtis Hill, 16, for defiantly throwing a crumpled piece of paper in the trash can.
In Holmes County, where 99 percent of the public school children are black, students say corporal punishment traditionally starts at daycare and Head Start centers, where teachers rap preschool-age students lightly with rulers and pencils, cautioning: “Just wait until you get to big school.”
At “big school,” the wooden paddle is larger—the employee handbook calls for it to be up to thirty inches long, half an inch thick, and from two to three inches wide—and the teachers sometimes admonish errant students to “talk to the wood or go to the hood” (slang for choosing between the paddle and an out-of-school suspension).
“It’s not really about you learning to listen, it’s about you feeling pain,” says Kameisha Smith, a 19-year-old college student who attended public schools in Holmes County and is helping to organize a student-led resistance to the practice.
In recent months, school districts have come under heavy criticism for suspending and expelling black students at much higher rates than white ones, starting in the youngest grades. During the 2011–12 school year, for example, black children made up only 18 percent of the preschool students included in one national survey, yet nearly half of the preschoolers suspended multiple times.
“We must tackle these brutal truths head-on,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan during a January press conference at which he issued new federal guidelines for school discipline. The guidelines call for schools to reduce their reliance on suspensions, through such strategies as improved training for staff members and partnerships with community groups and juvenile justice organizations.
Yet both the guidelines and the national conversation have overlooked the brutal truths when it comes to physical discipline in the schools, which still occurs tens of thousands of times a year. As with suspensions, black children are far more likely to get paddled at school than white ones. In 2012, for instance, black children made up 18 percent of the student population but 35 percent of reported incidents of corporal punishment in states that allow the practice, according to a survey from the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.
In Mississippi, where about half of all public school students are black, these racial gaps have widened slightly in recent years: in 2012, black children accounted for about 64 percent of those paddled, up from 60 percent in 2000.
The national conversation over corporal punishment is muted partly because schoolhouse paddling is limited predominantly to one region: the South. Only nineteen states (including just a few in the West and Midwest) permit the practice, while students can (and do) get suspended in all states.
But there are other, more complicated reasons that the debate over paddling has taken a different course. In communities like Lexington, the wielders of the paddle and its most vocal defenders are mostly black. Critiques of the practice have become conflated with attacks on the black community’s right to self-governance, even when those critiques are voiced by other African-Americans. It’s one of the ironies of the debate that defenders speak of corporal punishment in terms of black self-sufficiency—emphasizing a community’s right to determine how it educates its children—while critics speak of it in terms of black subjugation.
“We feel as if we know what is best for our kids,” says Troy Henry, an African-American board member of St. Augustine High School in New Orleans, who three years ago fought against an effort to abolish corporal punishment at the all-male and historically black Catholic school. He added that the paddle helps enforce the importance of rules and boundaries. “The margin for error is much smaller in black communities, especially for black boys,” he says.
But Joyce Parker, the African-American founder of a community organization in Greenville, Mississippi, that is opposed to corporal punishment, says the paddle symbolizes a “legacy we’re trying to outlive.”
“During slavery, we were whipped on the back, beat on the back and dehumanized,” she says. “The sad part is that we are doing it…to ourselves now.”
Signs of Change
Even in Mississippi, where a higher percentage of students get physically disciplined than in any other state, the paddle is starting to lose some of its might. The number of beatings fell 33 percent between 2008 and 2012, according to a report by the Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson.
In Holmes County, where Lexington is located, 83 percent of the residents are black; the median household income is about $22,000; and the average life expectancy—66 for men and 73.5 for women—is the lowest of any county in the United States.
Holmes County’s nine public schools enroll about 3,000 students. School staffers paddled students 351 times during the 2012–13 school year, according to state figures provided in response to a public records request. That number has fluctuated in recent years, dropping from more than 300 incidents in 2009 to sixty-eight in 2011–12, and bouncing back up in the last school year.
Holmes is not an anomaly, but the prevalence of the practice varies widely throughout the state. In 2012–13, three dozen Mississippi districts reported more cases of corporal punishment than Holmes County, with a few large districts paddling their students more than 1,000 times. Other districts are bowing to criticism and using the paddle less. A few, including Jackson Public Schools in the state’s capital, have banned the practice altogether. The recruitment of younger teachers through alternative programs like Teach for America has contributed to the decline, because they are far less likely to embrace corporal punishment.
Like many small towns in the region, Lexington has a rich history and an enduring charm. B.B. King briefly lived here as a young adult, and jazz bassist Malachi Favors and blues musician Lonnie Pitchford were both born here. The commercial center is shaped like a square, as in the famed college town of Oxford 110 miles to the north, with businesses ringing the picturesque courthouse in the center.
On one weekday afternoon in winter, however, a busker carrying a placard with the word cash appeared to be the only sign of life in the square. She tried to attract customers to a small storefront advertising payday loans and title advances. Given the dearth of people, the busker might as well have been addressing her vigorous shouts and motions to the wind.