State-sanctioned violence or necessary deterrent? Paddling remains staple of education in this Mississippi school and many more
Published 3:41 pm Tuesday, June 7, 2022
By Tara García Mathewson, The Hechinger Report
At the beginning of every school year, April Johnson oversees distribution of the Covington County School District student handbook. Tucked into the first half of the handbook is a section titled “Corporal Punishment.”
The handbook details how the punishment will be meted out: sensibly, “and applied only to the student’s buttocks in such a manner that there will be no permanent effects.”
It puts limits on the frequency: “No more than three licks and one paddling a day.”
It gives parents highly specific instructions if they don’t want their children paddled: present a request, in writing, to the school principal or assistant principal, “prior to the second Monday of the beginning of each school year.”
And it offers students a caution: “Refusal to take corporal punishment may result in suspension.”
Johnson is the principal of Mississippi’s Collins Elementary School, where the paddle remains a staple of the educational experience. Local records show that nearly half the time students faced formal discipline this school year, their consequence was paddling. Almost every week, sometimes multiple times per week, some of the school’s 328 students were pulled out of class because of a behavior problem, but unlike students in the vast majority of schools nationwide, their consequence was physical.
As of late April, educators pulled out the paddle 20 times on kindergartners, twice on first graders, 31 times on second graders, 16 times on third graders and 10 times on fourth graders.
Globally, 135 countries prohibit corporal punishment in schools. The United States leaves it to states to set policy, and, absent statewide bans, local school districts make their own rules. Superintendents then leave it up to principals and often parents to decide whether to use corporal punishment on a given student, creating unequal systems of discipline within the same communities and even the same classrooms.
In Covington County, giving parents a say has helped prevent controversy over the use of corporal punishment, but a Hechinger Report investigation has found this system of local and parental control is rife with problems. School officials don’t always respect parents’ wishes. They implicitly — and sometimes explicitly — pressure parents and students into allowing or actively choosing the punishment, often by presenting it as an alternative to suspension. Families, faced with the prospect of missed learning time and a daytime scramble for childcare, opt for the faster, physical discipline and a return to class.
Corporal punishment has been on the decline in the United States for the last several decades, in part because of growing evidence that it harms students’ wellbeing and academic performance while also failing to improve their behavior long-term. Thirty-one states ban the practice, and the most recent federal data show that in the remaining states, 90 percent of schools chose not to use it during the 2017-18 school year.
Still, those records show that more than 69,000 children — disproportionately Black and disproportionately male — were hit almost 97,000 times.
According to a Hechinger analysis, 150 schools in eight states used corporal punishment on 20 percent or more of their students that year. Most of those schools — 69 — were in Mississippi.
The state doesn’t allow corporal punishment in daycare centers. Nor in home foster care or licensed group homes. It’s not legal as a punishment for a crime. Yet students at Collins Elementary join the increasingly isolated ranks of those legally paddled at school.
‘I feel like no kid should be hit with a board’
Johnson is the mother of three girls. One is in college and two are in high school in another district. During their elementary school years in Covington County, though, Johnson had to consider whether she wanted to allow them to be paddled by their teachers — as she was as a child. Every year, she decided the answer was yes.
“I say, ‘I hope you’ll never have to use it, but let me know,’” Johnson said.
One time when one of her girls got in trouble at school, the teacher, who Johnson knew personally, called to make sure she still approved of paddling. “I just told her, ‘She’s in your class. You handle it. If it were any other parent, what would you do?’” Johnson remembers. “I think she gave them one lick.”
Support for paddling is common in Collins, a place where families have deep roots. The city itself has had a scrappy commitment to existence in its 123-year history, surviving the boom and bust of the timber industry that first gave it life and weathering the 21st century with a fairly steady population of about 2,500. Many of those who now call Collins home grew up in Covington County themselves, as did their parents before them. The surrounding county is almost two-thirds white and about one-third Black. The median income is about $33,000 and almost a quarter of the population is considered to be living in poverty, a poverty that is concentrated in households sending children to the county’s public schools, where the vast majority of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
Here, corporal punishment has never come under coordinated attack. While states across the country have banned it and school districts even within Mississippi have distanced themselves from the practice, the winds of change have largely spared Covington County. Many parents, like Johnson, send their children to school to repeat their own experiences with the paddle. They say it’s a necessary way to keep students in line and don’t feel particularly scarred by their own experiences with it. Some in town think schools should use it more often. There are people of all ages who say they don’t have a problem with it.
Still, there are those who disagree — kids who don’t like getting paddled, and who don’t like their classmates to get paddled, either; parents who hold onto a sense of anger and injustice from their own youth, and adults who are surprised or even appalled to find out the practice remains.
Anger rises in Sherrell McGee when she talks about the indignity of being paddled at school as a child and, even more memorably, as a high schooler. “I was paddled with a dress on. A dress,” she remembers. “Having to bend over, touch the desk, with a dress on. No.”
McGee says her parents didn’t have the option of exempting her from corporal punishment at school. Now, parents can opt their kids out. Every year, McGee fills out a form saying teachers and administrators cannot paddle her kids. She has two left in Collins’ schools and one who has already graduated.
“I feel like no kid should be hit with a board,” McGee said. “I’m not going to hit my child with a board. I’m not going to let no one else hit my child with a board.”
Telling parents they have the final word on the use of corporal punishment in schools, however, is often a false promise. In the United States, the courts have historically sided with school officials when parents have sued over excessive force, whether or not the parents had given the school permission to hit their children. Supreme Court rulings from the 1970s continue to offer schools legal cover, even when children get hit so hard they require medical attention and when school officials hit students against their parents’ wishes.
Still, procedures like those in Covington County give parents the illusion of control by allowing them to opt their children out of corporal punishment. District policy is to respect parents’ preferences, but that doesn’t always happen. Children who shouldn’t be paddled are paddled anyway, usually when parent letters get lost, or because school officials don’t check their lists before doling out corporal punishment, a problem documented both inside and outside Covington County.
Covington County Superintendent Babette Duty chalks those cases up to human error. “Certainly, as long as human beings are running schools, you’re going to have that possibility,” she said, adding that the goal is to have policies and procedures in place that uphold the law and protect kids, while keeping parents informed. Sometimes, though, the system breaks down.
Damion Rankin Gooden, now an 18-year-old senior at a nearby private school, spent first and second grade at Collins Elementary School and 10th grade at Collins High School. Over spring break, he wandered into his mother’s office on Main Street in Collins just in time to hear her explaining her opposition to school-based corporal punishment. Arnella Rankin holds onto bad memories of getting paddled in the city’s schools as a child and argues the practice doesn’t solve anything.
“I knew when my kids went to school, I was not going to let them get paddled,” Rankin said. She dutifully submitted the paperwork to exempt them from the punishment and thought that was the end of it.
But Damion chimed in that he got paddled all the time at Collins Elementary School.
“You weren’t supposed to get no paddle,” Rankin pushed back. “I signed the paper.”
Damion is built like a football lineman and speaks softly, with a warm glimmer in his eye and a lift at the corner of his lips. His time in elementary school preceded both Johnson’s leadership at Collins Elementary and Duty’s in the district. Almost a decade after the fact, the elementary school’s paddling system remains clear in Damion’s mind: “You got colors,” he explained, “green, yellow, red. Once you get red, you get paddled.”
His mother’s eyes widened at the recounting. She shook her head.
“You really got paddled?” she asked again.
“All the time,” he said.
“I didn’t know.”
‘It’s just a deterrent to a point, and it usually works’
Johnson has been connected to the Covington County School District almost her whole life. After attending the district’s schools and inheriting a love of teaching from her mother, she went to college and put her degree to work in her hometown. She taught at Hopewell Elementary School for about 15 years and then moved into administration.
Johnson started at Collins in 2016 as an assistant principal and took the top job in 2020. Her tenure at Collins has overlapped with two developments that have contributed to a drop in paddling incidents: the state Legislature’s 2019 partial ban on corporal punishment — of students with disabilities — and a global pandemic that interfered with in-person learning. But the school continues to make up an outsized portion of the district’s use of corporal punishment and is among the most frequent users of the practice statewide.
Johnson said she doesn’t always resort to paddling, but finds that it can be a useful tactic to address student behavior. “You’re not doing it to hurt a child, bruise the child or anything,” Johnson said. “It’s just a deterrent to a point, and it usually works.”
Usually, Johnson said, it only takes once or twice to “reach a child.” But district records show a handful of kids have been paddled more than that this school year; seven have been paddled four or more times, with one student being on the receiving end nine times. Johnson said many of those incidents were spaced out and were for different behavior problems. She said the parents of the students who are paddled repeatedly urge the school to discipline their kids that way, even if she and her team would have resorted to alternatives.
This deference to parental preference is a common response from officials at schools that use corporal punishment. Ellen Reddy, CEO of the Nollie Jenkins Family Center in Holmes County, Mississippi, is among those who reject the logic. She argues, in line with the international human rights position, that children are citizens, too, and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
“The overall well-being of children is more important than an individual parent’s preferences,” Reddy said.
Research findings leave room for debate about just how bad corporal punishment by teachers is for kids, especially in the United States. While spanking and physical abuse at home have been widely studied by researchers, no studies have been published in top journals that tease out the effects of paddling at school on children’s long-term outcomes.
Still, researchers say they can draw parallels. Elizabeth Gershoff, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has analyzed hundreds of studies of parental use of corporal punishment to synthesize the findings and glean the impact on child and youth development. She has also analyzed data about corporal punishment use in schools. Upon hearing Johnson’s argument that paddling is not being used to hurt children, Gershoff said the risk of physical injury is only part of the problem with corporal punishment. The emotional component is also key. For many children, being embarrassed or intimidated by adults who have power over them feeds anger and resentment or anxiety and fear, all of which can have lasting negative consequences. When people say corporal punishment “works,” Gershoff pushes back hard. “The research does not support that at all,” she said.
An analysis of 75 studies by Gershoff and her colleagues compared the effects of spanking with the effects of physical abuse, finding that both relate to negative child outcomes and that the effects are of similar magnitude. These negative outcomes include more aggression, antisocial behavior and mental health problems as well as lower self-esteem and cognitive ability.
Longitudinal studies of corporal punishment in schools internationally, meanwhile, have found the practice is correlated with lower math scores, lower motivation and diminished academic progress, along with increased absenteeism and dropout rates.
Furthermore, a large body of behavioral research has found that punishment more generally does not work to change long-term behavior and instead leads to resistance and aggression.
Gershoff said it can be hard for people to recognize, in the moment, the consequences of hitting a child. “The kids don’t get paddled and then run out and rob a store,” Gershoff said. “These things happen months or years in the future and so people can’t see the connection because they didn’t happen at the same time. But in the research, we can, because we can control for a whole bunch of other things that happen in a kid’s life. We can say, ‘Is it the paddling, is it the spanking?’ And we can say yes.”
‘If I signed the paper, that means I don’t want it’
Collins Elementary School inhabits a single-story brick building with a “little free library” in the front yard and a “discovery garden” in the back. Slogans pepper the building’s walls: “Be Respectful, Be Responsible, Be Safe.” “Excellence with Determination.” “I am the Pride of CES.”
In some ways, the school presents an odd case as Covington County’s leading paddler. During Johnson’s tenure in administration, it has also become known as the district’s leader in a program called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS. The program is one of the most-studied behavioral frameworks for schools. A proposed ban on corporal punishment at the federal level, introduced in both chambers of Congress in 2021, highlights it as a strategy for making paddling obsolete.
PBIS emphasizes preventing bad behavior rather than only responding to it. Under the system, teachers encourage and celebrate good behavior, making subtle yet substantial shifts in the tone of their classrooms. They also spend time resolving the issues that lead to problem behavior in individual children, helping them learn the self-regulation and social skills they need to behave.
But if students misbehave too many times, teachers can still levy a punishment. PBIS experts say the framework doesn’t preclude giving students consequences for bad behavior. At Collins, that’s where Johnson has found room for the paddle. Among the options for punishment are a timeout, missed special activities, an office referral and corporal punishment. Johnson said if students do something serious, like damaging school property, they could automatically skip ahead to getting paddled.
But many PBIS experts believe corporal punishment should never be used in schools. Selina Merrell, project director at Realizing Excellence for All Children in Mississippi, a grant-funded initiative to support schools and districts implementing PBIS, has clear-cut advice for schools. “Corporal punishment is allowable in Mississippi,” she said. “However, we feel strongly that it is in direct opposition to the principles of PBIS.”
Yet Johnson considers her school’s PBIS implementation to be a success, citing fewer office referrals for bad behavior and fewer suspensions. She said it took about two years to fully implement, but that the school dynamics changed “greatly” from the 2016-17 school year to 2018-19. The Mississippi Department of Education’s accountability grade for the school tracks with her recollection. Over that period, the school rose from being labeled a D school to an A school. It didn’t, however, paddle fewer students.
For Johnson, the paddle remains central to her discipline policy. “Sometimes I feel like that’s all the child needs,” she said. “Sending the kid home, that’s what they want.” Johnson said she especially likes to secure permission to paddle students if she suspects parents aren’t offering any disciplinary reinforcement at home. She insists, though, that it is, ultimately, the parents’ decision.
McGee described receiving subtle pressure from Johnson and prior administrators to reconsider her anti-paddling stance when one of her kids was in trouble over the years. Each time, she found herself becoming increasingly indignant. “If I signed the paper, that means I don’t want it,” she said.
Once, the pressure came when McGee was out of town. She got a call from a former school official about her son. He had misbehaved and while they would normally send him home with a suspension, given her preferences, they knew she was out of town and might have trouble getting him, so they wanted to check again. “Just go ahead and let him take the paddle,” she remembers hearing. “I said, ‘No! Thank you. I’ll send someone to pick him up.’”
Opponents of corporal punishment argue presenting parents and students with the choice of the paddle or a suspension — which research also shows is ineffective and comes with a host of negative consequences — is disingenuous. “What a horrific false choice,” said Morgan Craven, the national director of policy, advocacy and community engagement at the Intercultural Development Research Association, a San Antonio-based group that advocates for bans on corporal punishment. “These are the only possible two things we can come up with?”
Interviews with people who work for nonprofits dedicated to school improvement as well as with parents, educators, researchers, community advocates and attorneys across five states suggest that the practice of asking parents to choose between suspension and the paddle is routine. Student handbooks, like the one in Covington County, set up the pairing of the two punishments. Johnson described letting parents arrive at the preference for corporal punishment on their own, after they see the downside of suspension.
Sometimes, schools even force children to choose. Reddy, from the Nollie Jenkins Family Center, said a middle school principal in Holmes County kept a paddle inscribed with the words, “Take the wood or go to the hood.” Linda Pee, a mother from Webster County, Mississippi, described the practice in testimony before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on corporal punishment in schools. She said student athletes, in particular, are pressured to take corporal punishment over a suspension so they won’t miss a game.
A Human Rights Watch report from 2008 chronicles more accounts in a section titled “‘The Devil’s Bargain’: Choosing to be Beaten. “The report quotes kids as young as 10 being asked to choose and opting for the paddle to avoid the academic consequences of missed class time, to evade their parents’ finding out about their misbehavior, to look tough, and to be present for extracurricular activities, class trips and even recess.
“Providing students a choice in this context is fundamentally exploitative, preying on vulnerable young people with underdeveloped decision-making capabilities,” the report concludes.
It’s difficult to say exactly how frequently children and parents are put in this position of having to choose, or even how widespread corporal punishment is as a practice, because the data is often unreliable. Schools are supposed to log instances of paddling within their walls, which districts are then supposed to compile. In Mississippi, under state and federal regulations, districts are supposed to report corporal punishment to the state monthly and to the federal government about every two years.
But discrepancies in local, state and federal data plague accountability efforts. Local records for Covington County School District, obtained by the Hechinger Report, show the district logged more than 1,300 paddlings since August 2018. State records, in contrast, show the district paddled its last student on Oct. 25, 2017.
Even the district’s own records may be an undercount. One high schooler said he alone accounted for more than the six paddlings Collins High School reported in 2018-19 and certainly more than the zero it reported the following year.
Duty, surprised when a Hechinger reporter identified Collins Elementary School as the district’s leading paddler, took a closer look at the data and surmised the elementary school reports paddlings carried out by teachers as well as administrators, while other schools in the district report only one or the other. She said the district made “a mid-year adjustment” following Hechinger’s questioning and directed all schools to report all instances of corporal punishment. It remains to be seen what that will do to the district’s overall numbers.
Meanwhile, she said she could not explain the discrepancy between local and state numbers, as the district uploads discipline reports monthly, as required. A state department of education official did not respond to specific questions about missing numbers from Covington County School District or about the accuracy of overall state totals.
‘How long are we going to keep this vestige of slavery around?
The paddle became a staple of this country’s schools long before April Johnson entered them. Reports of paddling students date back to the colonial period, and whether paddling deserves a place in public education has been hotly debated for almost as long. New Jersey became the first state to ban corporal punishment in schools 1867. Massachusetts became only the second more than a century later.
Stacey Patton, an outspoken critic of corporal punishment and author of the book “Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America,” traces the history of the paddle even further back — to the transatlantic slave trade. She points out that enslaved Africans were beaten with wooden boards as an alternative to the scarring lashes of a whip. This promised higher prices at auction. She tells Black families they need to “decolonize their parenting,” sharing research about how beating children does not have roots in Africa, but in the plantations of this country.
Reddy, CEO of the Nollie Jenkins Family Center, is a Black woman born and raised in the rural south. She has grappled directly with the history of slavery and racism and their influence on Black parenting in her fight against corporal punishment in Holmes County.
“How long are we going to keep this vestige of slavery around, to justify its existence? And to justify it only on children?” she said. “You can’t hit adults, certain children you can’t hit. So why is it that children attending public schools, it’s OK to hit them?”
In 2012, a group of young people affiliated with Reddy’s center launched a formal campaign to remove corporal punishment from the county’s schools. For the next six years, The Nollie Jenkins Family Center hosted community events, lobbied school board members and district officials and worked to change hearts and minds across the county.
“My position around corporal punishment is that it is state-sanctioned violence,” Reddy said. In fact, she clarified, it teaches students that violence is an option if you’re powerful and can hit hard and get away with it. “We’re trying to say to the schools and probably to the broader part of the community, ‘We can find other ways to resolve conflicts.’”
In the end, a leadership change paved the way to victory in Holmes County. A new superintendent, James Henderson, took over in 2018. Though he grew up in Holmes County, he was coming from the St. Louis City Public Schools in Missouri, where corporal punishment was already banned, and he asked the school board to change the policy immediately. Newly hired superintendents in other districts have taken similar steps. But in Covington County, the district has long been run by homegrown leaders who haven’t seen a reason to change, unaware that they have become outliers.
Nationwide, 95 percent of schools had dropped corporal punishment by the 2017-18 school year, either because of state laws, district policies or their own preferences. Advocates wonder why the federal government hasn’t stepped in to quash the practice entirely.
“Unless you traffic in pseudoscientific theories about race, about region, about class, why wouldn’t you believe that what’s harmful to children going to schools outside of those 19 states isn’t also harmful to those children in the 19 states where paddling is still used?” Patton questioned at a Congressional briefing last June. “This is a national issue.”
National momentum is, indeed, building. During a hearing in February, the House formally discussed corporal punishment for the first time in more than a decade. The proposed legislation, the Protecting our Students in Schools Act,would ban the practice in all schools receiving federal funds. It has Democratic support in both chambers. Advocates are trying to encourage more sponsors, on both sides of the aisle, to sign on. While advocates don’t expect the proposed bill to pass this session, the recent momentum has some hoping it could pass in the next couple years.
To be successful, though, opponents of corporal punishment will have to convince Republicans, especially, that the federal government should have a say in ending the practice. The desire to protect local decision-making power remains at the heart of Republican reluctance to support the ban.
During the February hearing, Rep. Burgess Owens, the ranking Republican member of the education subcommittee, argued that “school districts do not need a more prescriptive, one-size-fits-all mandate from Washington bureaucrats.” And he specifically urged school boards and school officials to engage parents in the decision-making. “Parents know what works best for their own children,” he said. Owens represents Utah, which prohibits corporal punishment in its schools, but he continues to advocate for the right of districts like Covington County to maintain the practice.
‘I’m hopeful that just organically this is all going to end better for kids’
Already, Johnson feels the pinch of local and state changes, and a future without corporal punishment doesn’t seem far off. Each year, more Collins Elementary parents fill out forms denying educators the option of paddling their kids. These directives are particularly common among younger parents and the parents of younger children, Johnson said. And Mississippi’s 2019 ban on the corporal punishment of students with disabilities has chipped away at the practice to the point where the state may no longer lead the nation in corporal punishment use.
Implementation of the partial ban hasn’t been perfect: Statewide, school districts have admitted to paddling students with disabilities 211 times since the new law made it illegal, according to state data acquired by Hechinger through a public records request. Few, if any, of those districts will face consequences. Jean Gordon Cook, director of communications at the Mississippi Department of Education, said the agency only takes action against districts using corporal punishment on students with disabilities if someone files a report in response. For now, it has no other policy in place to hold districts accountable when their monthly discipline reports show they broke the law.
Collins Elementary School logged 103 paddlings of kids with disabilities the year before the state ban went into effect. In the almost three years since, the school logged four. And while she has largely respected the new line, the legislative change still rankles Johnson. She said it has created an issue of fairness in disciplinary decisions.
She described an example: If a child curses and gets sent out of the classroom to be paddled, he can quickly return to class. But that’s no longer the case if that student qualifies for special education services. “Now you have to suspend that child because you can’t just send them back to the classroom, and giving them a time out is not conducive because you just paddled that other child,” Johnson said.
Other districts in the state made the same calculations and simply ended corporal punishment entirely. The Yazoo County School District used to routinely paddle kids, but Superintendent Ken Barron said teachers and administrators both felt uncomfortable with the new level of inequality within the student population. He said parents have made clear the change is inconvenient, as teachers call them in for more meetings as a response to student misbehavior. But Barron sees a resulting improvement in teaching.
“I think it’s made it more difficult for teachers who rely on the old-school, ‘I’m in charge of the class, I run this, you sit down, take your notes,’” Barron said. “That mindset has gone away. It’s almost nonexistent now.”
Taking corporal punishment off the table seems to have prompted teachers to make their classrooms more engaging, Barron said. It forced them to spend more time building relationships with students that pre-empt behavior problems. “I think it’s shifted how teaching is being done,” Barron said, “which is a good thing.”
Barron doesn’t think Yazoo County officials are alone in their logic. Despite potential gaps in state data, records from the last few years show significant change. During the 2019-20 school year, the first year the ban was in effect, corporal punishment rates plummeted statewide. Immediately before the ban, state totals indicate 12,607 students were paddled 21,476 times. The following year, state totals indicated 3,669 students were paddled 5,316 times — a drop of 70 percent. The ban on paddling students with disabilities only explained part of the decline: These students had previously made up about 20 percent of those paddled. While the shortened academic year due to COVID-related school closures certainly contributed to the decrease, it doesn’t account for the rest of the drop.
In Collins, Johnson acknowledged the shrinking pool of students she can paddle might soon disappear entirely. “Honestly, I see it coming,” she said.
Duty, who took over as superintendent in January 2020 after 17 years in the district and a lifetime in Collins, also sees a future without corporal punishment. She is expanding the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program and has brought in new grant money to support teacher training. She has also expanded an in-school suspension option, as a more palatable alternative to corporal punishment.
“I’m hopeful that just organically this is all going to end better for kids,” Duty said. For now, she said her schools are public schools and reflect the community’s desires.
Indeed, some parents still want their children’s behavior problems handled with corporal punishment, especially if the alternative is suspension. Should further legislation force Duty’s hand, however, she said she hopes the district gets enough notice to budget accordingly, allowing it to hire more counselors and psychologists to support student social-emotional health and try to head off behavior problems. She said those positions would be hard to fill — and, with routine underfunding from the state, hard to pay for — but she sees them as a necessary component of discontinuing corporal punishment.
In the meantime, Collins Elementary makes clear that implementing PBIS doesn’t preclude paddling. And every week that the district continues to allow the practice, and the state and federal governments refuse to step in, schools log more cases.
As of late April, the last child to get paddled in the district’s schools was a first-grade boy at Collins Elementary.
This story about corporal punishment in schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
This story was published in partnership with the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit newsroom that exposes corruption and injustices, shines a light into the darkness and raises up a new generation of investigative reporters. Sign up for our newsletters here.