When I arrived in North Carolina over a decade ago to teach and practice law, it was a bit of a culture shock for someone who had rarely been south of the Mason-Dixon line. In juvenile delinquency court, judges would tell tales from their own childhoods that sounded almost too clichéd to be true: mamas beating their misbehaving children with a switch that the child had to cut himself, schools located miles from home when the only option was to walk and teachers paddling students as a regular component of classroom discipline.
Because I practice in counties where the local school boards do not allow corporal punishment, I have not encountered it firsthand, but a recent report by NC Child, a nonprofit advocacy group, reminded me that there are about 15 districts (out of the state’s 115) where teachers and administrators are permitted to hit students.
The state’s laws on corporal punishment allow “reasonable force” to be used, which is defined as that which does not cause an injury requiring medical attention beyond simple first aid. This means that schools are the only place in North Carolina where an adult can strike an unrelated child and not be criminally prosecuted for assault.
Parents may opt out of the use of physical discipline on their child only by completing a form at the beginning of the school year. Otherwise, it is assumed they agree. When parents have opted out, the student may instead be suspended for offenses that would otherwise not require suspension if corporal punishment could be used.
According to an annual report issued this month by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, in 2014-15 there were 147 uses of corporal punishment, a 20.5 percent increase from the 122 reported in 2013-14; 108 students received it once, while 16 received it two or more times. The majority were boys, over 60 percent were in kindergarten through fourth grade and 25 percent in grades 10-12.
Particularly troubling is that more than half were Native American, even though these children make up less than 1 percent of the state’s 1.4 million public school students. All the instances occurred in four counties, with 60 percent taking place in Robeson County, the home of the Lumbee Tribe, and 32 percent in Graham County near the Cherokee Indian reservation; 10 percent of the students were identified as disabled.
Equally concerning are the reasons cited by schools for paddling children. More than 50 percent were for “disruptive behavior,” a catch-all category that can mean almost anything; 10 percent were for leaving school grounds, and nearly 8 percent for cell phone use. Other reasons include “insubordination” and “inappropriate language.”
Decades of research
NC Child reports that there is no evidence that the use of corporal punishment in schools is associated with improved academic outcomes. This is backed up by decades of social science theory and research suggesting that the deliberate infliction of pain upon the body of a student is associated with increased aggressive and delinquent behavior, broken relationships between students and schools, and increased psychological and emotional problems, both in the short- and the long-term.
North Carolina is one of 19 states in which corporal punishment in schools is legal, a list that includes all of the Southern states plus several in the West. According to the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 167,000 students received physical punishment in the 2011-12 academic year, with the majority of paddling occurring in Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia. The data reflect that a disproportionate number of the students receiving corporal punishment across the U.S. are African-American.
As for reform, 31 states and the District of Columbia have banned corporal punishment in schools, along with many large urban school districts in states where paddling is still condoned, including Atlanta, Houston and Memphis. While Ohio and New Mexico abolished the practice several years ago, legislative attempts in Texas and Louisiana have failed.
A variety of professional groups have advocated against the use of paddling in schools. On the national level, they include the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and the American Medical Association. In North Carolina, the State Board of Education, the North Carolina Association of Educators, the North Carolina PTA and virtually all other child advocacy groups and professional organizations are formally opposed to the practice.
It is time for the N.C. General Assembly to prohibit teachers and administrators from hitting students. It is a degrading practice that violates students’ physical integrity and human dignity.
Tamar R. Birckhead is a professor at the UNC School of Law.