Why Are Black Students Facing Corporal Punishment in Public Schools?

Why Are Black Students Facing Corporal Punishment in Public Schools?

Why Are Black Students Facing Corporal Punishment in Public Schools?

A growing controversy over use of the “paddle” to discipline children has a painful racial subtext.


Lexington, Miss.

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.

Debate over the issue of corporal punishment has pitted parents against kids, neighbors against neighbors, and superintendents against principals in some instances. But opponents of corporal punishment have never gained enough traction to eliminate the practice districtwide. (In Mississippi, the decision about whether to paddle is left up to individual communities.)

Defenders of the practice in Holmes argue that corporal punishment is not only a rite of passage and an effective discipline tool, but mandated by the biblical proverb “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” They also claim there’s a disproportionate need for the paddle in a place where poor children of color will be afforded few breaks down the road if they don’t learn to follow the “rules” early on.

Anthony Anderson, a minister and member of the Holmes County Board of Education, says students who learn the importance of “rules and regulations” will be less likely to get into trouble—or act out violently—as adults.

“There was no other alternative given in the Bible,” he adds.

“Reasonable and Moderate”

Students at Lexington’s Nollie Jenkins Family Center, which hosts different afterschool workshops, are pushing back hard against this ethos. They believe the opposite to be true, arguing that paddling is an act of violence that simply begets more violence.

As part of a grassroots campaign, the students are collecting signatures, lobbying school board members and spreading word of their dissent via social media. They face an uphill battle, since a majority of the school board supports the paddle.

Kameisha Smith, who attends Tougaloo College in Jackson, says she was paddled three times between the ages of 10 and 14 as a student in Holmes County public schools. One time, everyone in her class received the punishment for laughing and snickering when they were supposed to be standing silently in line. A second time, a teacher was disappointed with her work. She can’t recall the reason for the third paddling.

Students at the county’s career and technical school have traditionally been responsible for designing and building the paddles that will be used on their peers (and, occasionally, on themselves). Some of the paddles have names scrawled on them by students or staff. A retired paddle kept at Nollie Jenkins Family Center, for instance, goes by the name “Mr. Feel Good.”

It’s most common to get paddled on the rear, according to several students at the family center. Typically, students are told to bend forward and place their hands on a desk or wall before the paddle is administered. The district’s employee handbook states that only a principal, assistant principal or “designee” can wield the paddle; for children in grades seven and above, the staff member must be the same gender as the student. The handbook also states that “corporal punishment shall be reasonable and moderate” and should be preceded by “less stringent” measures such as counseling. It does not specify how many times a child can be struck or on what part of the body.

But students complain that teachers sometimes stray from both the letter and the spirit of the regulations: administering the paddle without permission of the principal, failing to find a female staff member to paddle older girls, or adding embellishments—holes in the wood, wrapping two paddles together with tape—that make the blows hurt more. Occasionally, they say, students get injured, particularly if a student gets hit on the hand.

Three years ago in Mississippi’s Tate County, in the northwest part of the state, a 15-year-old’s family sued the district, alleging that the teen fainted and pitched forward while being paddled, shattering five teeth and breaking his jaw. (Last year, a judge dismissed the family’s federal claims, citing, among other reasons, a Supreme Court ruling that the Eighth Amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment does not apply in school corporal punishment cases.) Similar lawsuits crop up every few years. Mississippi law states that teachers and administrators cannot be held liable in such suits if they follow school district rules and act without “malicious purpose.”

Curtis Hill, 16, vividly remembers “Big Daddy,” the two paddles wrapped together that a teacher used on students’ hands and bottoms when Hill was in the fourth grade. He also remembers the fractured wrist he says one student suffered as a result of a paddling in middle school.

Yet Hill says his family members continue to support corporal punishment. “My mom, my granddaddy, my aunt, they like it because the preacher said—”

“Spare the rod, spoil the child!” one of his classmates interjects.

In Hill’s view, though, the paddle is mostly about “belittling” children. “It makes you feel like nothing,” he says.

Powell Rucker, the superintendent of Holmes County schools, says it’s rare for school staff to stray from the district rules when it comes to administering the paddle. “I have not seen that frequently,” he says, adding that staff members who deviate are disciplined. Rucker says administrators do not routinely hit students on their hands, but that sometimes students stick their hands in front of their bottoms at the last minute, which can cause increased pain. “With the paddles being as small as they are, there have been no major injuries,” he says.

For Rucker, who physically disciplined his own children, paddling is a religious imperative. “You can’t change the Bible,” he says. “You just can’t.”

“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.”


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