Corporal Punishment in American Education: Readings in History, Practice, and Alternatives

By Irwin A. Hyman; James H. Wise | Go to book overview

An Overview

Irwin A. Hyman Eileen McDowell

A great Nez Perce Indian chief was once on a peace mission to a white general. The story goes that as he was riding through the white man's camp he observed a soldier hitting a child. The chief reined his horse and said to his companions, "There is no point in talking peace with barbarians. What could you say to a man who would strike a child?" His observation was tragically prophetic for his own tribe and perhaps an accurate assessment of American society in that place and time. The event he witnessed was not an unusual one then, nor is it unusual or illegal now. It was and is accepted practice to beat children in the United States.

On April 19, 1977, the United States Supreme Court, in a five to four decision, ruled that corporal punishment as a disciplinary tool in public schools did not constitutionally constitute cruel and unusual punishment and that the children so disciplined were therefore not guaranteed protection by the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States ( Ingraham v. Wright). The Court noted that "public school teachers and administrators are privileged at common law to inflict only such corporal punishment as is reasonably necessary for the proper education and discipline of the child; any punishment going beyond the privilege may result in both civil and criminal liability." That is considerably less protection than criminals enjoy. The minority opinion of the Court in fact suggested that by restricting the Eighth Amendment's protection to criminals, children in school would have to commit criminal acts in order to be protected from harsh physical punishment by school authorities. The minority opinion also pointed out that the ruling, by denying schoolchildren due process in cases of physical punishment, has deprived them of even rudimentary assurance "against unfair or mistaken findings of misconduct."

Educators and parents responded variously, but none without passion. The Supreme Court decision did not settle the issue of using corporal punishment in schools; on the contrary, it sparked a new controversy raising questions basic to American education. If, as repeated Gallup polls suggest, discipline is regarded as the major problem in the schools, then the use of physical punishment as a means of maintaining discipline must be ex

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