Wednesday, August 24, 2016
New Corporal Punishment Data Should Remind Us That Zero Tolerance Suspensions and Expulsions Will Not Simply Fade Away
Yesterday, Ed Week reported that 109,000 students were paddled in school in the most recent year's data. These instances of corporal punishment occurred in 21 states and 4,000 schools. "Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Oklahoma physically disciplined the most students." Poor students, moreover, appeared to be those most at risk. African-Americans were also at heightened risk. While only African Americans were only "22% of overall enrollment in schools using corporal punishment," 38% of students paddled were African American.
In my forthcoming book Ending Zero Tolerance, I make the argument that historical trends in corporal punishment offer an overall warning sign for our most vulnerable student populations: zero tolerance and excessive suspensions and expulsions will not go away simply because the general public turns against them. There will always be holdouts, and those hold outs occur in the very places where help has always been needed the most. And right now, suspension and expulsion has a lot further to go. Our public schools continue to suspend and expell more than three million students a year.
In the book, I explain that in 1997 in Ingraham v. Wright the Supreme Court
held that schools were free to corporally punish students and that schools need not even afford students with any due process prior to paddling them. The Court reached this conclusion notwithstanding the unsettling facts of the case. Speaking of the lead plaintiff, the Court wrote: “Because he was slow to respond to his teacher’s instructions, Ingraham was subjected to more than 20 licks with a paddle while being held over a table in the principal’s office. The paddling was so severe that he suffered a hematoma requiring medical attention and keeping him out of school for several days.” Ingraham’s classmate was regularly paddled for “minor infractions. On two occasions he was struck on his arms, once depriving him of the full use of his arm for a week.”
The Court offered up the possibility that students could sue the teacher or school under state tort law as the reason why it need not intervene. A close examination of the case, however, reveals that the Court simply thought it unwise for courts to become further involved with discipline. Better to let schools and society work it out. In one respect, the Court’s faith in schools and society was not misplaced. In the ensuing years, much of society and the education system came to see corporal punishment as barbaric, rephrasing it as “beating” rather than paddling. With this changed perspective, the number of districts and states that authorized corporal punishment sharply declined. By 2014, over half the states prohibited corporal punishment in schools. In those states that still permit corporal punishment, many school districts or schools prohibit the practice of their own accord. But in another respect, the Court’s faith in society and schools was sadly misplaced.
The reality for actual students in many communities remains relatively unchanged since 1977. Twenty-one states still permit corporal punishment, notwithstanding the social science and national consensus against it. The practice holds on the strongest in those places where it has always been the most troubling. Today, every state in the southeast permits corporal punishment and many schools there frequently impose it. Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas all paddled more than 30,000 students in the 2006–2007 schoolyear. In Mississippi, 7.5 percent of the student population was paddled each year.
The lesson for school suspensions is simple. Even if a national consensus turns against zero tolerance and harsh discipline, the shift will have little effect on the lives of students in many communities. Only judicially enforced rights can bring justice and fairness to these communities. Even if policy could eventually resolve the problem, courts should not ask students to wait on states and schools to respect their rights. Constitutional rights exist to protect citizens against the whims of local, state, and federal majorities. Each unjustifiably imposed suspension or expulsion is a deprivation of a right that demands a response. Each suspension or expulsion represents a potential educational death sentence and second-class citizenship.