Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Corporal Punishment in American Public Schools and the Rights of the Child

Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Corporal Punishment in American Public Schools and the Rights of the Child

Article excerpt

They say hard cases make bad law. Ingraham v. Wright was a hard case.1 In Ingraham, several junior high school students and their parents filed an action in federal district court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1981-1988 alleging that school administrators in the Dade County, Florida school system used excessive corporal punishments violating their rights to bodily integrity.2 The disciplinary punishment was excessive and disproportionate with the offenses committed. One plaintiff received more than twenty licks with a half-inch thick wooden paddle while being forcibly held over a table just because he was slow to respond to the teacher's instructions. The beatings resulted in a hematoma that required medical treatment and ten days absence from school.3 Another plaintiff was beaten about the back, neck, and arm for alleged tardiness.4

The plaintiffs in Ingraham v. Wright requested relief on three separate constitutional grounds: a violation of Eighth Amendment rights, a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and a violation of their substantive due process right to physical integrity.5 The Supreme Court granted certiorari on only two issues: whether disciplinary corporal punishment of public school students violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, and whether procedural due process requires notice and an opportunity to be heard prior to the imposition of corporal punishment.6

The Court expressed no outrage that the Dade County school officials rendered brutal and disproportionate punishments for minor offenses and trivial indiscretions.7 Instead of either condemning the school officials for using excessive disciplinary tactics or expressing its abhorrence of corporal punishment, the Court's silence trivialized the notion that schoolchildren have a constitutional right to be free from physical abuse. The Court's holding conveyed the message that only upon grievous loss would a child possibly have a claim under (sec) 1983 against state actors for excessive, wanton, and unreasonable corporal punishment.

The focus of this paper is the administration of corporal punishment to children in the American public school system. First, this paper will address the history of corporal punishment and the justification for its use. Second, this paper will discuss Ingraham v. Wright, and the question of a student's constitutional rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Finally, this paper will argue that the standard imposed for finding a violation of a student's substantive due process rights is unnecessarily harsh and callous.


Corporal punishment is the willful and deliberate infliction of physical pain on the person of another to modify undesirable behavior.8 The more familiar forms of corporal punishment are slapping, spanking, and paddling the buttocks.9 The more cruel and abusive forms include piercing the skin with straight pins, hitting with blunt objects, breaking bones, painful limb contortions, excessive exercise and smacking across the genitals.10

Corporal punishment is neither a neophyte nor a newcomer to American culture.11 In some form or other, corporal punishment pre-dates the founding of the United States.12 Today, corporal punishment finds its justifications in two distinct areas. One of these is the need of parents to control and properly rear their children.13 The Supreme Court has never held that a parent cannot use corporal punishment to discipline his or her child. Likewise, many would argue that a parent, charged with the training and upbringing of a child, has the inherent right to adopt such disciplinary measures that will enable the parent to discharge that parental duty.14 However, a parent's right to use corporal punishment does have its limits. According to common law, a parent cannot resort to punishment which would "exceed that properly required for disciplinary purposes or which would extend beyond the bounds of moderation. …

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