If you thought that corporal punishment was a relic of our educational system’s distant past, think again. Some nineteen states, clinging tightly to the Supreme Court’s 1977 ruling in Ingraham v. Wright, still allow corporal punishment in their schools, subjecting hundreds of thousands of American children to legal beatings every year.
In 2012, Mississippian schools alone hosted 39,000 floggings, often for minor transgressions like “having a shirt untucked, being tardy, or talking in class or in the hallway.” According to a report from the Juvenile Information Exchange, more than 28,500 students in Georgia were spanked in 2008, mostly in rural counties. Children with disabilities fare particularly poorly in corporal punishment states; the 14 percent of American students with disabilities comprise 19 percent of the students beaten and, in some places, are twice as likely as their able-bodied peers to be assaulted by school personnel.
Moreover, even if parents are opposed to corporal punishment, there is little they can do, if a school district permits it, to guarantee that their child will not be hit by an administrator if it’s been decided that she or he has broken the rules.
No child should be brutalized in school, but assaults on the disabled are especially appalling given disabled students’ increased vulnerability. School-sponsored thrashings often leave disabled children less physically resilient and more prone to long-term psychological trauma. The grandmother of Landon K., a 6-year-old Mississippian with autism, confided after her grandson’s beating, “When a child with autism has something like that happen, they don’t forget it.… The next day, I tried to take him to school, but I couldn’t even get him out of the house.”
Even without adding the threat and reality of official violence, school life can be terribly trying for children with disabilities. Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder are at a three-fold increased risk for being bullied, often physically. Children with muscular dystrophy, ADHD, cerebral palsy and spina bifida are also disproportionately bullied. On an emotional level, many students with disabilities complain that their peers, ostensibly cordial, refuse to befriend anyone who seems different. To kids simply trying to fit in, facing rejection just for appearing “weird” is devastating.
When disabled students act up, frequently in misguided efforts to attract their peers’ affection and attention, as most children do at some point, we should remain cognizant of their disadvantages and aim to redirect their energies towards productive social activity. When the misbehavior persists, we should employ counselors to help identify its roots. Schools should model civility and creative problem solving, not vengeance and anger.
Alternatively, I suppose, we can continue to throw caution to the wind and treat children as demonic lumps of clay to be smacked around at teachers’ discretion. We must then be willing to forgo the social benefits of students learning how to deal with problems nonviolently. We will also have to accept the unwavering hostility of students who, after being beaten once, will forever despise their teachers and the schools that let it all happen.
What we need is legislation that would first outlaw corporal punishment of disabled students, and then of their able-bodied peers, to affirm the dignity of those for whom institutional support is absolutely vital. Will nineteen states heed the call for a civilized schooling system? The security of thousands of students depends on it.