Pediatricians often regard schools as safe spaces for children to learn, socialize and develop with the support of trusted teachers and staff. Schools also address critical social determinants of health such as food insecurity through lunch programs and access to health through school-based health clinics.
Yet, U.S. schools continue to use corporal punishment, defined as the infliction of pain upon a person’s body as punishment, despite substantial evidence against it being an effective strategy for discipline with children.
In 1991, the AAP first released a statement to end such treatment in schools, and in later years, strengthened its opposition. Yet, more than three decades later, corporal punishment, including paddling and spanking, remains legal in many U.S. schools.
An updated policy statement reviews the state of legislation regarding corporal punishment, identifies key disparities among Black children and/or children with disabilities and calls for a concerted effort to abolish its use in schools.
The policy Corporal Punishment in Schools, from the AAP Council on School Health, is available at https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2023-063284 and will be published in the September issue of Pediatrics.
Where is it legal?
At the time of publication, corporal punishment remained legal in public schools in 18 states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming. It also is legal in private schools in all states except Iowa and New Jersey.
While 96% of public schools in the U.S. report they do not use corporal punishment, schools that do employ this discipline method account for nearly 70,000 children being struck by school personnel each year.
Close to 55 million children attend school each year in the United States, based on National Center for Education Statistics from 2020.
Data indicate that students with disabilities and those who are Black or male are more likely to be physically punished in school than their peers.
Black boys are almost twice as likely to be struck as White boys (14% vs. 7.5%), and Black girls are more than three times as likely to be hit as White girls (5.2% vs. 1.7%). Among students who received physical punishment at school, 16.5% were receiving services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Advocating to end corporal punishment, which disproportionately impacts Black and male children, aligns with the AAP policy statement The Impact of Racism on Child and Adolescent Health, calling for pediatricians to “address and ameliorate the effects of racism” on children.
Summary, key recommendations
- Until children can learn without fear of physical punishment, schools will not be safe learning environments for everyone.
- The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled corporal punishment is constitutional, leaving the use of the practice up to individual states. Corporal punishment is legal in public schools in 18 states.
- Corporal punishment should be abolished by law in all states and replaced with alternative forms of student behavior management.
- Advocacy is needed to reduce the number of states allowing the practice in both private and public schools; federal legislation may be required to end corporal punishment in schools.
- Just as pediatricians are expected to guide parents toward alternative discipline practices in the home, the updated policy calls on pediatricians to help educators and schools understand the negative impacts of corporal punishment and use alternative discipline methods in school settings.
Dr. Peterson is a lead author of the policy statement.
- U.S. Department of Education resources on creating supportive school environment
- Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS),
- Information for parents from HealthyChildren.org on the AAP policy