Why Is It Still Legal To Physically Punish Kids In School?

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Melissa Carter, an elementary school principal, is currently under investigation for "paddling" — or spanking — a six-year-old student in Clewiston, FL. According to cell phone footage of the incident shared by WINK-TV, the child cried and tried to move while Carter and a school clerk held her in place. She was being punished for reportedly damaging a computer. And even though Carter asked her mother to bring a $50 payment to school (which she did), the principal still paddled her daughter in front of her upon arrival.
The girl was in "severe pain" afterward, reported the sheriff's office. "The investigation remains ongoing at this time," the Clewiston Police Department wrote in a statement. "The Clewiston Police Department takes all matters of child welfare seriously and remains committed to protecting the most vulnerable members of our community." Robert J. Egley, the Hendry County District Schools' deputy superintendent, also told The New York Times that "the situation is still under investigation." But the case has sparked a larger concern over using physical punishment on young kids in schools. Although Hendry County District Schools policy does not allow corporal punishment, spanking students is considered legal in Florida — and 18 other states.
In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporal punishment in schools is not considered "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Eighth Amendment — which is why, today, corporal punishment laws vary state by state and sometimes county by county. In Texas, for instance, guardians can choose to sign a statement requesting that their child isn’t subjected to physical punishment. Oklahoma has specific guidelines in place meant to exempt students with "significant cognitive disabilities" from spanking. Some counties even specify the exact dimensions of the paddles that can be used.
Hendry County's policy specifically states that punishments should not "demean students," but Florida law says that corporal punishment is allowed if approved by a school's principal. In the 2011-2012 school year, 4% of Florida schools reported the use of physical punishment. Other states, however, have much more staggering numbers: The same year, 53% and 51% of Arkansas and Alabama schools, respectively, reported the use of physical punishment. 
And according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Black boys are twice as likely to be physically punished compared to white boys, and Black girls are three times as likely to be physically punished compared to their white counterparts. NAACP President Derrick Johnson wrote that these statistics, and the practice overall, should disturb everyone — "not only because studies show that students of color do not misbehave any more than their white peers," he wrote in the SPLC report, "but because the impact of corporal punishment can be devastating on a student's ability to learn and succeed."
As Elizabeth T. Gershoff and Sarah A. Font noted in a 2012 study, this practice would be considered assault with a weapon or child in abuse in almost any other situation. Military training centers and many juvenile detention facilities have banned it. It's also proven to impede students' ability to learn. So why is physical punishment still allowed in schools?
Marion County, FL, which is about 200 miles north of Clewiston, outlawed physical punishment in 2010. But the board voted to reinstate it in 2013. According to the county's school board, corporal punishment is preferable to alternatives like expulsion or suspension, which members likened to "a vacation." Advocates also believe it instills fear in children, which trains them not to misbehave.
But this belief goes against everything we know from psychologists, social workers, and medical professionals. "By definition, spanking is intended to cause bodily pain as a way of correcting or punishing a child's conduct," wrote Susan H. Bitensky in Corporal Punishment of Children: A Human Rights Violation. "Most child care experts agree that spanking does absolutely nothing to further the main disciplinary goals of developing the child's conscience and inclination toward peaceful conflict resolution. It appears that the only conceivable good that can come out of smacking a child is the ephemeral one of stunning the child into a provisional halt of his or her transgression."
According to Bitensky, corporal violence benefits the punisher more than the child. She described it as "a device that serves the short-term needs of care givers," and simply makes educators feel in control and "let off steam."
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry agreed. In a statement last updated in 2014, the Academy wrote that it "takes issue with laws in some states legalizing such corporal punishment and protecting adults who use it from prosecution for child abuse." The collective also warned that this practice teaches kids to perceive violence and pain as a natural punishment, which could lead to them resorting to similar behavior. 
The Clewiston mother's lawyer, Brent Probinsky, said that he and the girl's family both hope Carter faces criminal and administrative action. "The hatred with which she hit my daughter," her mother told WINK-TV in Spanish. "I mean, it was a hatred that, really, I've never hit my daughter like she hit her."
This story has been updated to include a statement from the Clewiston Police Department.

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