Missouri district brings back corporal punishment — at the urging of parents, it says

Two decades ago, the Cassville school district in southwestern Missouri stopped using the paddle as a form of punishment, a practice that the majority of students, like those in schools nationwide, had never experienced before the school leaders threatened them with physical force.

Despite evidence that it is harmful for all children, the practice of perpetuating and putting the onus on parents is common in thousands of public schools. District officials have pointed their finger at parents, facing criticism for requesting this change. The decision has reignited a national debate over whether schools should be allowed to use corporal punishment and has grabbed attention.

Nineteen states still allow corporal punishment in schools. Credit: Tara García Mathewson/The Hechinger Report

Educators refrain from implementing it, even in numerous schools where it is technically permissible by the district, federal data indicates that superintendents opt to prohibit it themselves in the majority of districts across those 19 states. Thanks to a 1977 Supreme Court decision that upheld educators’ authority to impose the penalty, physical discipline in schools is still authorized by 19 state governments.

Campaigning to ban corporal punishment in public schools, some parents, including those in Cassville, choose to opt out of allowing their children to be paddled. However, there are still districts that offer corporal punishment as an option, citing it as a means of discipline for parents who believe in it.Output: Advocating for the prohibition of corporal discipline in public schools, certain parents, such as those residing in Cassville, elect to exempt their children from receiving physical punishment. Nonetheless, there are still school districts that provide corporal discipline as a choice, justifying it as a form of discipline for parents who support its use.

During a February hearing, Representative Owens Burgess, a Republican from Utah, offered an opening statement about among other things, a bill that would ban corporal punishment in all public schools, leaving parents wondering what will happen to the federal funds that schools receive.

Owens, the top member on the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, expressed, “Families are aware of the most effective approaches for their own kids.” In the end, educational committees and school administrators need to focus on involving parents in these crucial conversations concerning their children’s well-being.

“We know from decades of research that hitting children actually makes their behavior worse over time, not better.”

Elizabeth Gershoff, professor, University of Texas at Austin

Sometimes parents can feel pressured to choose corporal punishment, such as one detention or five days of in-school suspension, as a consequence for high schoolers who show disrespect or defiance for the second time. The number of violations that warrant an alternative to suspension are outlined in the student handbooks of Cassville.

Interviews with advocates, parents, educators, researchers, and attorneys reveal that this decision, whether to suspend or use corporal punishment, is not exclusive to Cassville in five different states. When confronted with the possibility of their children missing class or being paddled by school authorities, numerous parents opt for the latter. They express the preference of their children not missing school, as it can negatively impact their academic progress and create challenges for parents in terms of childcare.

Opponents argue that schools should find alternatives to both corporal punishment and suspension as disciplinary measures. Neither corporal punishment nor suspension come with a range of troubling consequences, and neither effectively improves student behavior, despite having a good track record.

Elizabeth Gershoff, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who researches physical discipline and regularly criticizes its implementation in educational institutions, labeled the practice as ineffective, excruciating, and unjust.

Gershoff stated, “In the event that a teacher were to strike a parent using a board, they would face charges for assault with a weapon, however, if that identical teacher were to strike the child of said parent, it is referred to as corporal punishment.” He further mentioned that this disparity exposes children to lesser safeguards compared to adults. “Extensive research spanning several decades has consistently demonstrated that physically disciplining children actually exacerbates their behavior in the long run, rather than improving it.”

Deferring to local control and parental preference has historically hindered the prohibition of corporal punishment in schools, but unlike 135 other countries, the U.S. Government has not taken this step. Moreover, in over 60 countries, corporal punishment is also forbidden within the household.

An example of a paddle used in a Mississippi school. Thousands of schools around the country still use corporal punishment on their students. Credit: Tara García Mathewson/The Hechinger Report

A group called Group A is forming to speak out against abusive policies targeting students. High schoolers in Missouri have organized a new policy against disciplinary actions. They held a rally on August 29th, where they held signs that read “Stop fighting violence with violence” to emphasize their commitment to ending bullying without resorting to aggression.

Local authorities have indicated that they did not seek a response to reintroduce corporal punishment, as they have multiple approaches to reinstate it.

Kalia Miller, a senior at Cassville High School, is one of the new student leaders in the group. She observes that there are clearly underlying issues contributing to the misbehavior of students, rather than just their behavior. She sees that the students who are hitting others and acting out are the ones who may face the paddle again this year. She doesn’t want to resort to corporal punishment, but she also realizes that her parents didn’t choose it for her. Additionally, she sees that her peers don’t want it either, as she notices them not supporting it on the table.

Kalia expressed, “Regardless of whether parents opt for it for their own children, it has consistently proven to be ineffective and will continue to be so. It is not an efficient or beneficial method of discipline. Moreover, resorting to physical punishment on children is ineffective. Even if it is voluntary, we are still resorting to physical punishment on children.”