Image of paddle used to hit students

Corporal punishment is the use of physical force to cause pain or harm to someone accused of breaking a law or rule. In schools in the United States, forms of corporal punishment include spanking or slapping, hitting with weapons such as paddles, rulers, or belts, and forcing students to perform physically painful activities such as crawling over rough terrain or excessive running.

Corporal punishment exists in preschools, kindergartens, and in elementary, middle, and high schools. It violates the right to safety, bodily integrity, due process, and the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. Corporal punishment is not only physically hurtful, but it also causes emotional damage, humiliation, and shame. It leads to academic disengagement and higher dropout rates and impairs student progress. We believe that no one should be subjected to physical punishment and that the law needs to protect everyone equally regardless of age.

Anti-corporal punishment activist Paula Flowe
Anti-corporal punishment activist, Paula Flowe, protests in favor of a federal bill to ban corporal punishment in schools. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Corporal Punishment and the Law

Throughout US history, corporal punishment has been used against both adults and children as a way to punish and control negative behavior. Now, however, only adults are protected from the practice. Delaware was the last state to use it in sentencing in 1952 and the practice of whipping prisoners with a strap has been outlawed since in 1968 as a result of Jackson v. Bishop (1968). In that case, the court concluded “that the use of the strap in the penitentiaries of Arkansas is punishment which, in this last third of the 20th century, runs afoul of the Eighth Amendment; that the strap’s use, irrespective of any precautionary conditions which may be imposed, offends contemporary concepts of decency and human dignity and precepts of civilization which we profess to possess; and that it also violates those standards of good conscience and fundamental fairness.”

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did not feel the same way when a case involving corporal punishment in schools came before them. In the case of Ingraham v Wright (1977), two high school students, James Ingraham and Roosevelt Andrews, sued their school alleging they were deprived of their Constitutional rights after being struck with a paddle. The Court concluded that the Eighth Amendment was “inapplicable” in school settings as it has traditionally been used to protect those convicted of crimes, not students. However, Justice White, along with Justices Brennan, Marshall, and Stevens, dissented, noting that the purpose of the Eighth Amendment could be applied to students as it does not expressly mention that it only applies to criminals. The goal of the Eighth Amendment, they argued, is to prohibit punishments deemed inhumane, no matter how grievous the offense committed and therefore, similar punishments cannot be logically imposed on persons guilty of minor infractions, such as breaches of school discipline.

Currently, corporal punishment in schools is banned in 128 countries, but is still in many U.S. states. The following map shows which states have banned the practice.

Legal Status of Corporal Punishment in US Schools

Legal, although may be banned in certain cities and school districts

Illegal in public schools only for students with diagnosed disabilities

Illegal in all public schools

Illegal in all public and private schools

The Prevalence of Corporal Punishment

The rate at which corporal punishment occurs in schools varies from state to state – in some states the practice is virtually non-existent and illegal; in others, thousands of young people are struck every year.

Every two years, the Department of Education asks every public school in the country to report on the number of students it has physically punished during the previous year. Analysis of this data shows that males, young persons of color and students diagnosed with a disability are disproportionately more likely to be the victims of this abuse by their teachers and school administrators.

The following table shows the number of young people who were struck in a school setting during the 2011-2012 school year. It does not show the  number of times hitting actually occurred, which is certainly much higher. It also does not reflect the prevalence of corporal punishment in private schools, where it is legal in all states except for two.

Corporal Punishment in US Public Schools 2011-2012

Number of victims per 10,000 students

Less than 1

Between 1 and 5

Between 5 and 50

Between 50 and 100

More than 100

Number of total students who received corporal punishment during the 2011-2012 school year

Mississippi 31,236 Wisconsin 196
Texas 28,569 Montana 185
Alabama 27,260 New Jersey 172
Arkansas 20,083 South Carolina 150
Georgia 12,282 Alaska 140
Tennessee 10,318 South Dakota 138
Oklahoma 9,772 Maine 133
Missouri 5,012 Idaho 127
Louisiana 4,464 Massachusetts 121
Florida 4,372 Nebraska 86
Pennsylvania 1,934 New Hampshire 86
Michigan 1,656 Kansas 59
California 1,578 North Dakota 59
Kentucky 1,113 Washington 57
Illinois 660 New Mexico 52
New York 609 District of Columbia 41
Indiana 603 Oregon 30
Arizona 601 Utah 28
Ohio 579 Vermont 24
North Carolina 527 Wyoming 16
Colorado 463 Rhode Island 8
West Virginia 379 Maryland 1
Iowa 269 Nevada 1
Minnesota 225 Delaware 0
Virginia 204 Hawaii 0
Connecticut 197

As noted above, cases of corporal punishment have been reported even in states where the practice is illegal. For example, Maine outlawed corporal punishment as early as 1975, but 133 students received corporal punishment in that state during the 2011-2012 school year. The numbers from Illinois are even more disturbing: corporal punishment was administered to a staggering 660 students during the 2011-2012 school year, although the state banned the practice in 1993. Maryland reported only one case of corporal punishment during the 2011-2012 school year, but the recent Prince George’s County incident demonstrates that some schools in the state are still resorting to this method of disciplining students. As reported by The Washington Post, six Prince George’s school-system employees who worked in the county’s troubled Head Start early education program were disciplined, following a federal report citing incidents of corporal punishment and humiliation of children. In one incident, a 3-year-old in wet pants was forced to mop up his urine in front of his classmates, with his teacher texting a photo of the boy’s effort to his mother.

Equally troubling is the fact that school authorities sometimes administer corporal punishment to students in express defiance of their parents’ wishes. The case of Ayanna Smith’s son Jalijah caused headlines in Texas, a state where parents can “opt-out” of corporal punishment for their children. In 2016, Jalijah, a kindergarten student, was paddled although his mother had already signed the form denying the school permission to paddle him.

What You Can Do

  • Support legislation to ban corporal punishment. Here is a list of currently pending legislation:
    • Nationwide: Rep. Alcee Hastings has introduced the Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act of 2017, which would make corporal punishment illegal in all public schools and those private schools that receive federal funds. It is currently referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
    • You can also encourage your representatives to introduce legislation to ban corporal punishment.
    • Get your school board to ban it in your community.
  • Get information on the use of corporal punishment in your school or district. The Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education tracks the number of students who have been hit at school. You can find information particular to your school or district by following this link. To view a discipline report for your school, first select the year for which you need data. Then, choose “School” to indicate the level of data required. After typing in the name of your school, select it and click on “Add to Data Set.” Finally, you can click on “View Report” or on the icon under “View Detail” to access the relevant information.
  • Contact the media. If you or someone you know is a victim of corporal punishment, you can go to the media and report your case.