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Student Discipline and Punishment: Background

In the 1990s and 2000s, educators, law enforcement agencies, governments, courts, parents, and the general citizenry in the United States considered new and troubling questions regarding student discipline and conduct. The late 1990s witnessed a number of spectacular on-campus crimes by juveniles, including acts of murder, suicide, assault, and massive property damage. The seriousness of these events brought attention to the problems public schools face in managing students who act out in life-threatening criminal ways.

Clampdown reaction to enhanced security and student protection competed with legal concerns about student constitutional rights, particularly the right to due process. Other widespread crimes in schools, such as physical conflicts between students and student drug use, weapon possession, and theft, disrupted the academic setting and all too often frustrated the true goals of education: teaching and learning.


The word "discipline" is akin to the word "disciple." Discipline in one sense means learning, just as the word disciple refers to one who learns. Additional meanings of discipline suggest the complexity of the subject as it pertains to individuals (in this case specifically minors) and the U.S. public school system. Discipline refers to training and experience that corrects, molds, and strengthens individuals' mental faculties and moral character. It also refers to punishment that intends to correct and that is enforced by those in authority or may be self-imposed.

Discipline likewise refers to the control gained by enforcing obedience, and it pertains to the systematic orderly behavior defined by codes or rules set forth by institutions for their members. Moreover, discipline refers to self-control and to the development of skills that help individuals resist temptation, act positively, and function both independently and cooperatively in ways that enhance personal development and community life. All of these definitions have been central to educators' efforts to find the most effective and useful way to support child development and learning.

Origin of Corporal Punishment

In the colonial era, the Puritan belief that humankind is innately tainted by the Original Sin of Adam and Eve led adults to see children as contaminated by an evil element that needed to be driven out by force. Puritans believed that all disobedience and academic error was the work of Satan, and children's innate proclivity for evil had to be destroyed through pain and humiliation. The idea that suffering can correct unwanted behavior became fundamental to institutional design, whether that design was the stocks in which prisoners were displayed for public abuse or the raised stools and dunce caps intended to correct student misbehavior or ignorance through humiliation.

"To spare the rod," it was believed, led inevitably to spoiling the child, so slapping, spanking, and whipping were generally understood as beneficial educational tools. These beliefs persisted. Indeed, as late as 1977, in Ingraham v. Wright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that spanking did not violate students' rights, noting the widespread use of corporal punishment to maintain student discipline in educational settings. Corporal punishment remained legal there-after in more than 20 states.

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