School Discipline is Trapped in the 19th Century
June 11, 2018

Several years ago, a school superintendent in western Tennessee tried to ban corporal punishment in the public schools. The superintendent, charged with improving the overall quality of schooling in the community, though that outlawing the antiquated process would be “low-hanging fruit.”

She was wrong. Staff revolted, claiming that an inability to physically paddle children would compromise their job of maintaining disciplined classrooms. The teachers petitioned the school board to preserve their ability to physically beat children, and the district was forced to swallow a compromise.

Instead of outlawing corporal punishment, the district decided that each school would have a single designated “paddler,” who would be responsible for administering corporal punishment to all children in the building.

To add a twisted, racialized dimension to an already horrifying story, one of the district’s only African-American principals, who happened to preside over a racially mixed elementary school, approached the superintendent to flag a problem with the new policy. You see, this principal was worried that, if she paddled a white child, she might be arrested. The district’s solution was to ensure that each school had both a designated paddler of white children, and a designated paddler of black children.

This decision to maintain segregated corporal punishment happened in the 2010s … not the 1810s.

While just about everyone I encounter has an almost physical reaction to this story, our school discipline policies harm children in every day, in every community in America, just in less obvious ways.

Decades of psychological research indicate that corporal punishment has significant, negative long-term effects on child development. While the jury is decidedly “in” on this issue, a puzzling debate rages about whether or not we should routinely suspend and expel young people from school. The harmful effects of suspension and expulsion is self-evident; it’s impossible to teach a child who you’re refusing to educate. In the meantime, national studies consistently confirm that black children, particularly boys, are suspended at rates that are wildly disproportionate to their composition of school populations: according to Brookings, the rate of suspension for black students is three times that of their white peers.

Educators administer these harsh punishments for a whole array of offenses that make absolutely no sense. Just type “black student suspended for” into a search engine, and brace yourself for a bewildering array of results: staring at a white girl, hugging a teacher, and calling out racism are all punishable offenses for black children in American schools.

The parallels with darker eras of American history are striking, as agents of the state used all manner of public policy to exclude non-white folks from public life for centuries. Alleged whistling at a white woman got Emmett Till lynched. Police with fire hoses punished black children who just wanted to attend regular public schools. We can pretend to relegate these incidences to our “dark history,” but more black people were killed by police in 2015 than were lynched during the worst years of Jim Crow.

Physical abuse is easy to repudiate, because its manifestations are so visually obvious. Most institutionalized racism, though, is executed with greater subtlety. Kicking kids out of school – whether for a day, a week, or permanently – should be the ultimate last resort for educators. Sadly, our school discipline policies seem trapped in the 19th century, in more ways than we care to acknowledge.

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