Coporal Punishment in Schools
A Position Paper of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, Journal of Adolescent Health: 1992; 13:240-246


Corporal punishment refers to intentional application of physical pain as a method of changing behavior. It includes a wide variety of methods such as hitting, slapping, punching, kicking, pinching, shaking, choking, use of various objects (wooden paddles, belts, sticks, pins, or others), painful body postures, use of electric shock, use of excessive exercise drills, or prevention of urine or stool elimination (1).

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Historical Perspective

In the United States, corporal punishment has been a conventional method in disciplining children and youth since our colonial times (2,3). Only during the past 20 years has there emerged a growing outcry condemning such practices with school children (4,5).

In 1972 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American Orthopsychiatry Association sponsored a formal conference on this subject (2). At that time, only two states (Massachusetts and New Jersey legally banned corporal punishment in schools. In 1974, the American Psychological Association passed a formal resolution banning corporal punishment in schools and established the Task Force on Children's Rights, further dealing with this issue. A National Education Association report was published during this decade which denounced corporal punishment in schools and officially recommended that it be abolished (2).

In 1987, a formal organization named the National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment in Schools developed. This coalition included the National Center on Child Abuse Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, the Parent-Teacher's Association, the National Education Association, the Society for Adolescent Medicine, and over 20 other groups who were united in their efforts to ban the practice of physically punishing children and youth in school. This coalition has continued an active movement, with national and local meetings, newsletters, articles in various publications, and other means designed to cultivate public awareness regarding this important issue (4,5).

Corporal punishment in schools has been proscribed in Europe, (including Eastern Europe), as well as in Israel, Japan, and other countries. One can trace the roots of corporal punishment in the United States to England, which remains the only European nation legally allowing it. In 1979, Sweden further advanced the rejection of corporal punishment in schools by banning physical punishment by parents, as well (6).

In 1867, New Jersey became the first state in the United States to legally ban such disciplinary action in schools. Other states which have subsequently passed a legal ban include California, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin, in addition to the District of Columbia (5,7,8). In other states (Alaska, Connecticut, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oregon, and Virginia) there are state board of education directives and/or local school precepts repudiating corporal punishment (5). Current estimates suggest this ban includes over 200 cities (including 30 or more large urban regions) and many school districts by the action of local school boards or other local restrictions (5,9).

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Yet, 30 states continue to authorize corporal punishment in their schools. Though estimating that this problem has been underreported by two to three times, there were over 1 million occurrences identified in the 1986-1987 school year with 10,000-20,000 students requesting subsequent medical treatment (4,5,7). Hyman et al. (10) note that there are about 1.5 million reported cases of physical punishment in school each year, but calculate the actual number to be at least 2-3 million.

The highest incidence tends to be in the south and southwest (particularly Florida, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Kentucky), while the lowest is in the northeast, where a number of states have outlawed this (1,5,7,11). In 1984, 1 in 2,000 students in Utah and Connecticut received corporal punishment, compared with 1 in 8 Arkansas students (7). Current studies indicate that physical punishment is more common in grades kindergarten through 8 (versus high school), in rural schools (versus urban), in boys (versus girls), and in disadvantaged children (versus middle-class and upper-class Caucasians) (1,4,5,7,11).

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Au Courant Corpus Juris Milieu

A major obstacle to establishing a universal ban on corporal punishment is the current popular opinion in the United States that it is legally permissible to apply physical punishment to children in school. The common law since before the American Revolution has provided that, although teachers may use reasonable force to discipline children, any excessive or unreasonable force will subject the educator to either criminal liability or a civil claim for personal injuries. Due in part, no doubt, to the inability of student to interest overburdened prosecutors and police forces in filing criminal actions against teachers for alleged assaults, various attempts have been made by recipients of corporal punishment to expand their common law rights to the level of constitutional claims. These attempts have met with limited success (1,8,12,13).

In 1975, the United States Supreme Court concluded that the due process provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment require that students are entitled to a hearing prior to any prolonged ejection from school for disciplinary reasons (14). In the landmark case of Ingraham v. Wright (15), 2 years later, questions of students' constitutional rights in a disciplinary setting were again considered. Specifically, the Court considered two questions; 1) whether the reprimand-induced paddling of two male students violated their Eighth Amendment right to be free from "cruel and unusual punishment," and 2) whether the action violated their Fourteenth Amendment right to due process; i.e., their right to a hearing before the infliction of punishment.

The Court answered both questions in the negative declaring that the Eighth Amendment proscription against cruel and unusual punishment is designed to protect those charged and/or convicted of a crime, rather than students in a school disciplinary setting. Second, the Court held that the common law remedies civil actions and criminal liability adequately protected the students' Fourteenth Amendment due process rights. The Court noted that the school milieu is an open organization with sufficient public surveillance to minimize the chance of abuse children.

The Court in Ingraham specifically left open the question of whether and under what circumstances corporal punishment of a student might give rise to an independent federal cause of action to vindicate substantive rights under the due process clause. Since Ingraham, several Appeals Courts have proceeded through the opening provided by the Supreme Court and have remanded for trial, cases in which students alleged violations of their substantive due process rights. In Hall v. Tawney (16), the Fourth Circuit Court defined this as "the right to be free from state intrusions into the realm of personal privacy and bodily security through means so brutal, demeaning, and harmful as literally to shock the conscience of a court." The Tenth Circuit Court has agreed with Hall stating that "we believe that Ingraham requires us to hold that, at some point, excessive corporal punishment violates the pupil's substantive due process rights (17) (remanding for trial a case in which a 9-year-old girl was held up by her ankles and hit with a board on the front of her legs until they bled, resulting in a permanent scar). Agreeing with the Fourth and Tenth Circuits, the Eighth Circuit established a 4-step test to be used in determining whether particular conduct has resulted in violation of a student's substantive due process rights(18).

Nevertheless, the burden of establishing a substantive due process violation, regardless of which circuit's definition is used, is a very difficult burden to meet. Generally speaking, it would be easier to prove a criminal case of assault and battery than to prove that a teacher has violated a student's substantive due process rights in a particular school disciplinary action.

An example is a Texas case involving two girls (ages 5 and 6 years) who were struck three times across their buttocks because their teachers saw them giggling in a hall. In that case, the Federal Appeals Court ruled that there was no due process violation with excessive corporal punishment, because plaintiffs could turn to Texas common law. On March 6, 1989, the United States Supreme Court denied a review of this Texas case (8). Studies consistently note that Texas is one of the states having a high rate of corporal punishment. For example, in 1973, over 3,000 paddlings per month were given in Dallas schools, some only because the student did not address the teacher as "sir" or for incorrect spelling (7).

Thus, the attempts to expand students' common law rights by invoking the Constitution have met with limited, and generally, unsatisfactory results. Using the court system to prove that corporal punishment has been excessive remains difficult. The punished minor always has the burden of proof to show that punishment in a particular case was excessive, rather than requiring the involved school official to show that the punishment was reasonable under the circumstances (19).

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Is Corporal Punishment a Positive Disciplinary Method?

There remains a strong undercurrent of opinion in the United States favoring corporal punishment in schools, and such advocates include various fundamental churches, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the American Federation of Teachers (20,21). A 1985 poll (20) revealed that such punishment is acceptable to 47% of the American population and 60% of school officials (teachers, administrators, board members). Current research (20,21) notes that adults (parents and teachers) who were physically punished as children are more supportive of this than those who were not.

Advocates for corporal punishment in schools feel, as noted by the Ingraham court decision, that it is an efficacious technique of training and discipline (2,22,23). According to this opinion, these children are better controlled, learn appropriate appreciation for authority, develop better social skills as well as improved moral character, and learn to better discipline themselves. Those with this conclusion often fell that our teachers do not have proper classroom order and that, for many students, physical punishment is the only technique left to preserve academic control. If this technique is thus removed, there will be greater disciplinary difficulty in our schools and reduced teacher security (2,21,23). Because current legal and popular opinion suggest it is acceptable for parents to physically punish their children, it is thus fully acceptable for school officials, who substitute for parents during school hours, to exercise this method as well (24). Such reasoning leads to the spurious conclusion that school have a moral and legal obligation to physically discipline minors. There is also a specious qualification to such arguments, that corporal punishment is only used as a "last resort" when all else has failed (2).

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The Case Against Corporal Punishment

It is the conclusion of the Society for Adolescent Medicine that corporal punishment is an ineffective method of discipline and has major deleterious effects on the physical and mental health of those inflicted (25). There is no clear evidence that such punishment effectuates more discipline or better control in the classroom (7,8,22,23). Physically punishing children has never been shown to enhance moral character development, increase the student's respect for teachers or other authority figures in general, intensify the teacher's control in class, or even protect the teacher (1,2,4,19). Such children, in our view, are being physically and mentally abused and there are no data actually demonstrating that such victims develop enhanced social skills or self-control skills (1,3,10). Current research concludes that corporal punishment is not always a method of last resort, and that there is not an increase in violence in schools which reject use of this technique. There are many effective alternatives to corporal punishment, and it is possible for school authorities to learn them and for children to benefit from such techniques (1,5,11,20,21,23).

Current research in behavior modification concludes that using positive reinforcement techniques that reward appropriate behavior is more efficacious and long lasting than methods utilizing aversive techniques. Punishment is based on aversive technology and produces very limited results (26). A student may cease acting up in one class only to continue in others. Such an individual learns the wrong message, one of avoidance or escape of getting caught or negative ways of eluding detection for wrong doing (27). This student apprehends techniques which actually lead to reduced self-control, with futile behavior characterized by more acting out, school absence, malingering, recidivism, and overt academic revocation (5,7,10,11,19-21,28).

Research notes that corporal punishment constructs an environment of education which can be described as unproductive, nullifying, and punitive. Children become victims, and trepidation is introduced to all in such a classroom. There is a limited (if any) sense of confidence and security, and even those children who are witness to such abuse are robbed of their full learning potential (22,24,26,28,29). Students who are witnesses or victims of such abuse can develop low self-esteem, magnified guilt feelings, and the acquisition of anxiety symptoms; such results can have baneful results in the psychosocial and educational development of the students (24-27,30). When studies look at the milieu of these classrooms, one finds that all are subjects to less, not more, learning. The nurturing of open communication, so vital to effective education, is severely spoiled in such aversive settings.

Hyman et al. (2,11,20) persistently assert that approximately one- half of students who are subjected to severe punishment develop an illness called Educationally Induced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (EIPSD). In this disorder, there is symptomatology analogous to the Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSS). As with PTSS, EIPSD can be identified by a varying combination of symptoms characteristic of depression and anxiety. This mental health imbalance is induced by significant stress; with EIPSD the stress is the inflicted punishment. Such victimized students can have difficulty sleeping, fatigue, feelings of sadness and worthlessness, suicidal thoughts, anxiety episodes, increased anger with feelings of resentment and outbursts of aggression, deteriorating peer relationships, difficulty with concentration, lowered school achievement, antisocial behavior, intense dislike of authority, somatic complaints, tendency for school avoidance, school drop-out, and other evidence of negative high-risk adolescent behavior (23,24). This is consistent with research noting that punished children become more rebellious and are more likely to demonstrate vindictive behavior, seeking retribution against school officials and others in society (5). Such punishment can result in what is termed operant aggression (in which there is a direct verbal or physical attack against the punishment source). The intent is to destroy or immobilize that source to prevent delivery of further punishment. Elicited aggression can also result in verbal and physical attacks; however, the aggression may be directed toward others in the environment, even those who are not the source of the original punishment. The intent is simply to destroy or immobilize anything that might cause delivery of additional punishment (27,31).

Patterson's extensive research on aggressive behavior and the coercive family concludes that an aversive consequence may also elicit an aggressive reaction and accelerate ongoing coercive behavior (28,29). This proponent of social learning theory further adds that children who experience aggressive acts are more likely to counterattack. These victims of aggressive acts eventually learn via modeling to initiate aggressive interchanges. These events perpetuate the use of aggressive acts and train children how to behave as adults. They learn to control unwanted behavior through the use of coercive techniques (28,29).

Children and adolescents can also be physically damaged by such punishment. Advocates of corporal punishment note is should be proportioned out in limited doses, based on the offense and without attempt to physically harm; however, this is often not the case, and many students are hurt. Apologists for aversive discipline suggest that the punishment must produce instant discomfort and must surprise the victim as soon as possible after the identified violation (26,27). Corporal punishment, however, does not often meet such standards, as punishment in excess of the infraction may occur, and repetition quickly eliminates the element of surprise. As noted previously (vida supra), at least 10,000-20,000 American students needed medical treatment after becoming victims of corporal punishment in their school environments during the 1986-1987 school year (4,5,7). Medical complications may prevent students from returning to school for days, weeks, or even longer. Reported medical findings include abrasions, severe muscle injury, extensive hematomas, whiplash damage, life-threatening fat emboli, severe arm or leg nerve injury (including fractures), brain hemorrhage, and others (including death!) (5,7,10,19).

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The Promotion of the Wrong Message: Violence

The use of corporal punishment in schools promotes a very precarious message-that violence is an acceptable phenomenon in our society. It sanctions the notion that it is meritorious to be violent toward our children, thereby devaluing them in society's eyes (9,19). It encourages children to resort to violence because they see their authority figures or substitute parents using it. It also sanctions the use of physical violence by parents toward their children. Parents are not trained to use alternatives to corporal punishment and encouraging them to hit their children is a dangerous message to promote in our violent society. Many parents were abused themselves as children, and this will only worsen the violence our children must face. The result is that we are harming our children in teaching them that violence is acceptable, especially against the weak, the defenseless, the subordinate-a message which will negatively effect generations yet unborn. Violence is not acceptable and we must not support it by sanctioning its use by such authority figures as school officials (23). We must develop and maintain a nonviolent temperament and orientation toward our children (7).

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Alternatives to Corporal Punishment

An important technique in maintaining classroom control is to develop a milieu of effective communication, in which the teacher displays an attitude of respect for the students. School officials can exhibit cordiality to students and an attitude that they generally enjoy working with children in the academic setting. Students must be taught in an environment that clearly states they are valued and understood. The emphasis is on positive educational exchanges between teachers and students, not futile, contentious, win-lose contests.

Teachers can learn sound blueprints regarding student motivation and nonviolent techniques of classroom control. It is critical to present educational material which is stimulating to the pupils and is aimed at their ability levels. Some students do need alternative academic courses, and these should be offered. All students (and their parents) should be carefully involved in decision making about school issues affecting them, including educational goals and disciplinary rules. School should have peer support programs which utilize techniques such as Rap Groups and Sociodrama to encourage acceptable behavior. The lack of parental involvement in the education of their children is cited by teachers as one of the major causes of current classroom disciplinary difficulty (32).

Behavior modification techniques for classroom control can be effectively utilized by school officials (33-37). Inappropriate behavior can be reduced by using extinction. This technique removes or eliminates the reinforcers which maintain the inappropriate actions (23,26,27,28,31). A variety of nonviolent disciplinary techniques can be taught and utilized, such as soft verbal reproofs or social isolation in addition to the persistent use of rewards (as love, praise, and attention by the teacher) for appropriate behavior (1,20,35-39). Such methods can be powerful, compelling tools, changing unacceptable behavior, and helping the locus of control become placed within the student in this model.

It is critical that our teachers receive as much support and training as possible in their efforts to maintain effective classroom control without resorting to violent techniques. Such training should include instructions on the deleterious short- and long-term consequences of corporal punishment. Schools should have an ample supply of counselors, especially for younger children. Schools need to have in-school suspension facilities, while avoiding use of large classroom sizes. Schools' policies need to allow for a wide variety of teaching and disciplinary methods which deemphasize the necessity for corporal punishment. The input of parents and students into such policies is critical to its overall success. An effective relationship must be developed between school officials, parents, and students to develop sensible rules which have appropriate consequences when infractions inevitably occur.

There is much that can be done at local and state levels to advocate the ban of corporal punishment in schools. Various court rulings have noted that corporal punishment in schools is an issue that can be resolved by state law and/or local district policies. Individuals can join various groups to evaluate their local and state climates in this regard (5,7). Banning corporal punishment at the local level has evolved from various effective strategies, such as civil suits against local schools using corporal punishment, promotion of publicity about such schools, and comparing the computerized corporal punishment rates of some schools. There is evidence that public opinion is gathering against such punishment. A survey report in 1989 noted 61% of 1250 questioned adults disapproved of corporal punishment in schools, versus 51% in 1968 (40).

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Summary Position

The Society for Adolescent Medicine concludes that corporal punishment in schools is an ineffective, dangerous, and unacceptable method of discipline. The use of corporal punishment in the school reinforces the notion that physical aggression is an acceptable and effective means of eliminating unwanted behavior in our society. We join many other national organizations recommending that it be banned and urge that nonviolent methods of classroom control be utilized in our school systems (5,7,22,41,42). We must abandon such a technique which overtly promotes more violence on our children.

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  1. Bauer GB, Dubanoski R, Yamanchi LA, et al. Corporal punishment and the schools. Educ Urban Soc 1990;22:285-99.
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  34. WE Brown, Payne T. Policies/practices in public school disciplines. Academic Therapy 1988;23:297-301.
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  36. Sulzer-Azaroff B, Mayer GR. Applying behavior analysis procedures with children and youth. New York, Holt, Rinehard, and Winston, 1977.
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  38. Jones VF, Jones LS. Responsible classroom discipline: Creating positive learning environments and solving problems. Boston, Allyn and Bacon, 1981.
  39. Carkhuff RR, Berenson PH, Pierce RM. The skills of teaching: Interpersonal skills. Amhurst, MA: Human Resource Development Press, 1973.
  40. Schulman, Ronca and Bucuvalas, Inc. Public Attitudes And Actions Regarding Child Abuse And Its Prevention. National survey prepared for the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse; Chicago, IL: 1989.
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  42. Committee on School Health, American Academy of Pediatrics. Corporal punishment in schools. Pediatrics 1991; 88:173.
Prepared by Ad Hoc Corporal Punishment Committee
  1. Donald E. Greydanus, M.D.
    Professor of Pediatrics and Human Development
    Michigan State University
  2. Helen D. Pratt, Ph.D.
    Assistant Professor Pediatrics and Human Development
    Michigan State University
  3. Samuel E. Greydanus, III, JD
    Private Law Practice
    Boston, Massachusetts
  4. Adele D. Hofmann, M.D.
    Professor of Pediatrics
    University of California-Irvine
  5. C. Richard Tsegaye-Spates, Ph.D.
    Professor and Chairperson
    Department of Psychology
    Western Michigan University

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