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Why Is Corporal Punishment Still Legal in Many U.S. Schools?

Korean School Classroom
By Christopher Coble, Esq. on August 06, 2019 | Last updated on August 07, 2019

Dating back hundreds of years, the legal theory of in loco parentis (Latin for "in place of a parent") has granted school teachers and administrators the same rights as parents when it comes to supervision and discipline at schools. And, for much of that time, corporal punishment -- including spanking and paddling -- was considered permissible at school, if not the explicit responsibility of teachers.

The trend away from corporal punishment in schools worldwide has generally followed scientific research demonstrating its ineffectiveness, and, in fact, that such punishment can create and exacerbate behavioral problems as increased anger, aggression, tolerance for violence, and lower self-esteem. But the United States hasn't followed other countries in banning corporal punishment in schools altogether.

Is Corporal Punishment Cruel and Unusual?

Recently, researchers from the University of Albany examined the trend in banning corporal punishment in schools. Unsurprisingly, they found "countries with higher levels of female political empowerment, as measured by things such as women's political participation or property rights -- that is, women having the right to sell, buy and own property -- were more likely to ban corporal punishment." And what might be holding other countries back?

Sadly, it may be our own legal history. As recently as 1977, the Supreme Court ruled that school spankings (even those so severe as to require medical treatment) do not violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

A federal court later ruled that students and parents could only challenge corporal punishment if the force applied were to cause injury so severe and disproportionate to the need for it and were "so inspired by malice or sadism rather than a merely careless or unwise excess of zeal that it amounted to a brutal and inhuman abuse of official power literally shocking to the conscience." That ruling has proved to be a pretty high bar when it comes to challenging corporal punishment in court.

State School Spanking Statutes

But that doesn't mean school spanking is legal everywhere. Twenty-eight states have banned corporal punishment in schools, and many counties, cities, and specific schools prohibit the practice.

In states that haven't banned it, the use of corporal punishment can vary widely. For instance, some students in Florida were required to fashion the paddles used to spank them. A Texas school, on the other hand, discontinued its paddling practice after a public outcry.

State statutes on school discipline and punishment can vary. To find out what the law is in your state, or if you feel a school has violated the law or your child's rights, contact a local education attorney today.

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