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.