Corporal Punishment and Child Abuse
Why do we continue to sanction child abuse in the classroom?

By Dr. Frederick C. Green
November/December 1988, "The Humanist"

We are in the midst of a national election in which the needs of children are being given a high priority because working mothers vote. It would be useful to recall the words of James F. Clark, the early American clergyman, as we confront those running for public office today, that "a politician thinks of the next election, but a statesman thinks of the next generation."

The mission of the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse (NCPCA) is the primary prevention of child abuse or violence in all of its forms directed against children. We believe that we have the knowledge, skills, motivation, and people to achieve our specific objective of reducing child abuse in this country by 20 percent by 1990.

Consistent with our belief that violence begets violence, our organization developed and accepted the following policy statement in 1983:

Since corporal punishment in schools and custodial settings contradicts our national policy dedicated to the eradication of child abuse from our society, and since appropriate disciplinary alternatives can be made available, we will work towards the elimination of corporal punishment in schools and toward the adoption of alternatives to corporal punishment.
In that same year, the American Humane Association noted that "we must stop spanking children as a matter of public policy."

However, a decade before, in 1972, the National Education Association proposed a model law banning corporal punishment in schools. They noted that "physical punishment hinders learning and may increase disruptive behavior:" A number of national organizations followed with similar policy statements. If we are to succeed, it is clear that we must spell out specific, effective alternatives, and I see by the program of the National Conference to Abolish Corporal Punishment in Schools that that will be done.

A number of years ago, while I was serving as associate chief of the U.S. Children's Bureau, my friend and colleague Dr. Ed Ziegler, the director of the Office of Child Development of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, noted that "the widespread acceptance of physical punishment as an appropriate disciplinary technique implicitly condones the physical abuse of children."

Educationally, discipline is improperly equated with corporal punishment. Basically, only in the armed forces, penal institutions, and in schools is discipline considered in this light. The root of the word discipline is disciple. Webster defines a disciple as an individual who is a pupil or adherent of the doctrine of another. Persuasion, not force, is implied.

The essence of corporal punishment is the inflicting of pain and humiliation. It is teaching by fear. I cannot describe either pain or humiliation as being developmentally enhancing. The lessons learned by corporal punishment are short-term and will usually disappear when the threat of punishment disappears. James Baldwin noted, "Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to emulate them." If the purpose of discipline is to help a child behave in a way which enables him or her to be productive and to achieve in the world, then learning by example rather than fear is much more reasonable. Talk and time are the most effective alternatives to spanking.

I oppose any form of punishment- corporal or capital-that does not mete out such punishment equally, fairly, and objectively. The Children's Defense Fund studies clearly indicate that black, Hispanic, and poor white minorities are at greatest risk to be on the receiving end of corporal punishment and suspension from school. The National Coalition of Advocates for Students noted that, "while black students represent 16 percent of the total in school population, they represent 28 percent of those receiving corporal punishment." A larger percentage of these students are suspended and fail to graduate.

The reasons for these dismal statistics are complex and multifaceted, but I believe that besides the underlying racism is the pernicious practice of low expectation for the performance of the pupil by the teacher.

There were 2.25 million cases of child abuse reported in 1987. Over eleven hundred children died because of it. According to Dr. Vincent Fontana, of the New York City Mayor's Committee on Child Abuse Prevention, "In New York City, two children per week die at the hands of their care providers."

There were one million incidents of corporal punishment in schools reported during 1986 and 1987. Ten thousand to twenty thousand students sustained medical injuries due to this punishment, or 1 to 2 percent of all corporal punishment recipients. Needless to say, these figures are far too high.

The Wall Street Journal of Thursday, August 4, 1988, headlined an article by Douglas Besharov, the former director of the National Center on Child Abuse, "The Child Abuse Numbers Game." He states:

Both federal studies found that only about 30 percent of all maltreated children are physically abused, and only about 10 per- cent of these children (3 percent of total) suffer an injury severe enough to require professional care. Thus, nine-tenths of the cases labeled "physical abuse" are really situations of "excessive or unreasonable" corporal punishment that, although a matter of legitimate government concern, are unlikely to escalate into a dangerous assault on a child.
If "excessive corporal punishment" is not a precursor to more severe assaults that could lead to disability or death of the child, the lessons we have learned since the inception of the recognition of the "battered child," by Dr. Henry Kempe, are erroneous. Although I consider myself a personal friend of Besharov, in this instance I feel that his comments are dangerously erroneous. It is this kind of thinking that supports the acceptance of violent behavior targeted at children by many child care providers -- including teachers.

From my perspective, as an advocate for the primary prevention of child abuse, I believe that corporal punishment in schools must be abolished in order to break the cycle of abuse and to prevent its transgenerational effect. Studies demonstrate quite clearly that the more a child observes violence or is a victim of violence at home or in school, the more likely it is that that child will commit acts of violence and will be able to accept such violence as an adult.

Another aspect of this problem is the "double jeopardy" in which some children are placed by being victims of corporal punishment in school. Imagine the child who is abused and brutalized at home. Upon coming to school, predictably he or she will engage in aberrant or disruptive behavior as a mirror of his or her unwholesome home situation. Now the child is set upon by the teacher or principal, when really the "bad" behavior was a cry for help that deserved therapy, not punishment.

We must not overlook the role of mental illness in the perpetuation of corporal punishment. For some adults, spanking or hitting children of the same or opposite sex is a source of sensual or sexual gratification. According to the proceedings of the Conference on Corporal Punishment in the Schools, held in Washington, D.C., in February 1977:

One out of every ten people in the general population suffer from some form of mental illness. Teachers are no exception.

One in twenty will spend some time in residential psychotherapy at some point in their lives.

One in ten children need special psychiatric or psychological therapy.

Thus, there is a high probability of an ill teacher, an ill child, or -- the worst possible circumstance -- both an ill teacher and an ill child involved in an episode of corporal punishment. These risks are just too great for potential disaster for us to continue sanctioning corporal punishment in our schools. Furthermore, this reinforces the need for unimpeded access to the full range of preventive health services for all school, aged children.

The role of the educational institution is to set an example for families' child-rearing attitudes and behavior, as well as to provide an education for the child. Eliminating corporal punishment in our schools would send a powerful message to all child care providers and would be a symbolic as well as a practical step in our quest to eliminate the use of physical force against children.

While banning corporal punishment from our schools may not solve the large problem of violence against children, it will provide a safer and more secure place in which children can learn and grow. Such a ban would provide an important step in trying to educate children and their care providers that more appropriate alternatives exist for correcting unacceptable behavior.

I believe that the lessons we have learned at NCPCA regarding strategies for the primary prevention of child abuse will be useful in our efforts to eliminate, corporal punishment from the schools, Three steps are crucial to our success:

In summary, our social and legal institutions should condemn violence against children instead of legitimizing it. It is time to put into practice many of the creative alternatives that have proven successful. Outlawing corporal punishment in our schools and other child care facilities would provide children with the same protection from physical attack that our legal system provides for adults.

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