Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

The Crime of Punishment: Racial and Gender Disparities in the Use of Corporal Punishment in U.S. Public Schools

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

The Crime of Punishment: Racial and Gender Disparities in the Use of Corporal Punishment in U.S. Public Schools

Article excerpt

Anecdotal evidence has long suggested that boys in general and African American males in particular are disproportionately represented among students who receive corporal punishment (CP) in school. Until 1994, no national data disaggregated by race and gender were available to determine if African American boys are indeed subjected to physical discipline at excessive rates. This study provides the first analysis of such race/gender-disaggregated data; it also lamentably confirms the popular belief. The incidence of African American males receiving CP was found to be extremely high, as was the likelihood ratio comparing Black male students' CP rates to those for other race/gender cohorts, especially White females. Limitations of the data set and implications of the findings are discussed.


The song of American education has long been sung to the tune of the hickory stick. Hyman (1990a) cites a schoolmaster in Boston in 1850 as claiming it took 65 beatings a day to keep the pedagogical process of a program serving 400 students running smoothly. In 1876, the school board of Newark, New Jersey, recorded 9,408 administrations of physical discipline, including actual floggings, for a system of 10,000 pupils.

In the present epoch, the U.S. Supreme Court's 1977 ruling in Ingraham v. Wright deemed that the hitting of pupils by school personnel was not a violation of children's Constitutional guarantees to due process or to protection from cruel and unusual punishment (Hyman,1990b). In the waning years of the 20th century, however, both the rationale for and the incidence of corporal punishment (CP) appear to have declined. By 1995, some 26 states had banned the practice altogether ("Student Spankings OK'd," 1995). Nonetheless, corporal punishment-i.e., the hitting of a child by an adult-survives in much of America's public educational system, and a large number of American adults, especially teachers, continue to support the use of physical discipline in the country's elementary and secondary schools (Brown & Payne, 1988; Elam, 1989).

Given this reality, many questions arise: What kinds of physical discipline are being used in our schools? Who receives such punitive measures? Who administers it? Are all children equally likely to get hit? What are the demographics of corporal punishment? These are the questions the present study seeks to answer.


There is one very obvious element regarding the use of corporal punishment in elementary and secondary programs that makes it unique and thus worthy of special consideration, and it is that the recipients of this form of punishment are still, by definition, children. Despite the distressing nature of the practice of corporal punishment, and given the current popular rhetoric of concern for children's well-being emanating from both the right and the left, the literature regarding it is surprisingly scant. Moreover, the information that is available seems at times to fly in the face of popular conceptions.

For example, contrary to popular belief, many incidents of physical discipline that take place in either the classroom or the principal's office do not necessarily involve mere mild spankings. Hyman (1990b) provides a chilling litany of violent measures taken by adults against children in America's schools: twisting children's arms; banging their heads on desks; ramming them up against lockers or walls; and punching, slapping, kicking, and shaking them into submission. Instruments that reportedly have been used to inflict CP include wooden paddles, rubber hoses, leather straps and belts, switches, sticks, rods, ropes, straight pins, plastic baseball bats, and arrows (Hyman, 1990b).

Who exactly is the most likely adult to use CP? The literature is not altogether clear, though Rose (1984) found that female principals are more likely to report using physical discipline than are their male peers. …

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