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"The only thing I wanna hear out of you is nothing!" Is It Time for Federal Legislation to Ban Corporal Punishment in Schools?

by Richard Fossey & Robert O. Slater - January 25, 2013

The time may be ripe for federal legislation that would banish paddles from†American schools forever.

In The Brothers McMullen, the 1995 movie about a dysfunctional Irish-American family, the McMullen brothers reminisce about their deceased father, an abusive alcoholic, whom no one in the family seems to miss. “Remember some of that stuff he’d say when he was half in the bag?” Jack McMullen asks his brothers.

“The only thing I wanna hear out of you is nothing!” brother Patrick recalls.

“The only thing I wanna hear out of you is nothing,” is basically the stance of Southern state legislatures on the topic of corporal punishment in public schools. Although corporal punishment in schools has been banned in most of the United States, the practice still hangs on in the South. With the exception of Virginia, which abolished corporal punishment in schools in 1989, every Southern state permits educators to inflict physical pain on students as a means of enforcing school discipline.

It is true that six non-Southern states also permit corporal punishment in the schools (Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Idaho, Indiana, and Wyoming). Outside the South, however, corporal punishment is seldom administered.  According to the American Civil Liberties Union (2008), the only states where corporal punishment is frequently administered are Southern States.

No doubt corporal punishment lingers in the South for multiple reasons but surely culture is among them. According to a 2010 National Opinion Research Center survey, Southerners are twice as likely as New Englanders (80 percent versus 40 percent) to agree with the statement that "sometimes it is necessary to discipline a child with a good hard spanking."  In no other region of the country was the endorsement of corporal punishment as high as it was in the South.

Corporal punishment is deplored by every reputable professional organization that has spoken on the topic, including the American Psychological Association (1975), the National Education Association (1972, 2010), and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (2004). Thirty-one states, Canada, and most of Western Europe have outlawed corporal punishment in the schools; and all reputable research has found the practice is harmful to children.

Surely it is time to retire the paddle from American public schools--all of them. The only question is how? Basically, there are three options.


First, we can rely on Southern legislatures to outlaw corporal punishment by statute. Over the last 35 years, more than two dozen states have abolished the practice. In 2011, New Mexico became the most recent state to ban corporal punishment in the schools.  

Regrettably, Southern legislatures have not joined the progressive trend of abolishing corporal punishment in schools as a matter of state law.  With the exception of Virginia, the Southern states remain committed to the paddle as an acceptable discipline tool in the schools.

Curiously, several Southern states have laws in place that protect prisoners from corporal punishment.  The Georgia Constitution, for example, prohibits whipping as punishment for a crime (Georgia Constitution Art. I, • I, Para. XXI); and Oklahoma bans the infliction of corporal punishment on incarcerated juveniles (Oklahoma Administrative Code • 377: 10-1-3(d) (1)).  Nevertheless, the legislatures in Georgia and Oklahoma both explicitly authorize educators to administer corporal punishment on school children.

From the perspective of corporal-punishment opponents, it would be ideal if Southern states would join their sister states and pass laws abolishing corporal punishment in schools.  Unfortunately, given their long record of inaction, it seems unlikely that Southern lawmakers will pass legislation any time soon that would ban corporal punishment in public schools.


Second, we can rely on local school boards in the Southern states to abolish corporal punishment in the schools as a matter of local policy. And indeed, research has shown that many Southern school boards have done just that.  Stephanie Phillips (2012) examined more than 1000 Texas school board policies and found that 60 percent of Texas school children attend school in districts where corporal punishment is banned.  Christopher Goodson (2012) looked at Florida school board policies and determined that more than 90 percent of Florida students are enrolled in school districts where teachers are barred from paddling children.  And a North Carolina study reported that the overwhelming majority of North Carolina school boards have adopted policies that prohibit corporal punishment in their districts’ schools (Action for Children North Carolina, 2008).

This is very good news and indicates that Southern school boards may be more enlightened about corporal punishment than Southern legislatures. Unfortunately, researchers have found that rural school districts in the South are still paddling children. For example, although Phillips found that urban districts have banned the practice of corporal punishment, more than 800 districts, mostly rural communities and small towns, still allow it.  Likewise, Goodson’s study found that corporal punishment has been abolished in Florida’s urban school districts, but it still takes place in rural districts.


What about federal legislation to ban corporal punishment in the schools? Is this a realistic strategy for removing paddles from the school environment? Last fall, New York Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy filed a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that would bar federal funding to any school district that uses corporal punishment as a way of disciplining students. Her proposed law, entitled the Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act of 2011, had eleven cosponsors.

Not surprisingly, all but one of the bill’s cosponsors are from states that have already banned corporal punishment.  Only Representative Jared Polis, a Congressional cosponsor from Colorado, comes from a state that permits educators to use physical force on students.

Unfortunately, Congresswoman McCarthy’s bill did not get out of committee and died at the end of the 2012 legislative session. She seems likely to introduce the bill again sometime in 2013.

What are the chances that federal legislation banning corporal punishment in public schools will eventually pass? The fact that Congresswoman McCarthy’s bill did not get out of committee is a bad sign. Indeed, many federal legislators from the 19 states that still permit corporal punishment will probably oppose any federal law that denies federal funding to school districts that paddle their students.  Mississippi, for example, has the highest rate of corporal punishment in the United States; and it would be surprising if a Mississippi federal legislator would vote favorably on a bill like the one introduced by Congresswoman McCarthy.


In 1867, New Jersey became the first state to ban corporal punishment in public schools. One hundred and fifty years later, 19 states still permit the practice. Thirteen of those states are Southern states, and it is Southern school children who are most likely to be beaten in a public school.

Now is time for the United States to join progressive nations all over the world and stamp out corporal punishment in all of the nation’s public schools.  Unfortunately, we cannot rely on local school boards and state legislatures to achieve this goal. If the nation is truly committed to protecting children from the violence of corporal punishment in the schools, federal legislation is the only way to get the job done.

As Congresswoman McCarthy’s efforts illustrate, Congress is apparently not yet willing to respond to this challenge. But the political climate regarding corporal punishment is slowly changing.

If federal lawmakers from the South became aware that corporal punishment is on the wane in many Southern states, they might be more receptive to a law like the one Congresswoman McCarthy proposed.  Corporal punishment opponents need to get the word out that at least three Southern states--Florida, North Carolina and Texas--are well on their way to retiring the paddle from their public schools.  They also need to let Southern congressional representatives know that urban school boards in the South are moving away from corporal punishment and that the practice is increasingly a rural phenomenon.

In short, the time may be ripe for passage of a federal law that would banish paddles from American schools forever. Public educators all over the United States should support the efforts of Congresswoman McCarthy and other humane legislators who are trying to stop the shameful practice of corporal punishment, a practice that has no legitimate justification.


Action for Children North Carolina (2011). Parental rights in jeopardy: Corporal punishment in the public schools. Author: Raleigh, NC. http://www.ncchild.org/sites/default/files/Corporal%20Punishment%202011_Final.pdf

American Psychological Association. (1975). Corporal punishment. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/about/governance/council/policy/corporal-punishment.aspx

Burns, E. (Producer), & Burns, E. (Director). The Brothers McMullen (1995). United States: Fox Searchlight Film (Distributor).

Goodson, C. B. (2012). A descriptive law and policy analysis of corporal punishment in Florida public school districts (doctoral dissertation). University of North Texas, Denton, TX.

Goodson, C. & Fossey, R. (2012, November 16). Corporal punishment is on the wane in Southern schools: Encouraging news from Florida, North Carolina and Texas. Teachers College Record. http://www.tcrecord.org  ID Number: 16940.

Human Rights Watch (2008). A violent education: Corporal punishment of children in U.S. Public Schools. New York: Human Rights Watch. http://www.aclu.org/pdfs/humanrights/aviolenteducation_report.pdf

Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651 (1977).

National Association of Secondary School Principals. (2004). Corporal punishment. Retrieved from http://www.nassp.org/Content.aspx?topic=47093

National Education Association. (1972). Report of the Task Force on Corporal Punishment. Washington, DC: Author.

National Education Association. (2010, April 14). Letter the House Education and Labor Committee on Corporal Punishment in Schools. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/home/38946.htm

Phillips, S. (2012). The demographics of corporal punishment in Texas school districts: A law and policy analysis (doctoral dissertation) University of North Texas, Denton, TX.

Phillips, S. & Fossey, R. (2012, April 5. Retiring the paddle: Local school boards wipe out corporal punishment in urban Texas. Teachers College Record. http://tcrecord.org  ID Number: 16745.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 25, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17008, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 6:46:50 PM

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About the Author
  • Richard Fossey
    University of Louisiana at Lafayette
    E-mail Author
    RICHARD FOSSEY is the Paul Burdin Endowed Professor of Education at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
  • Robert Slater
    University of Louisiana at Lafayette
    E-mail Author
    ROBERT SLATER coordinates the doctoral program in the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's College of Education and directs research development for the Cecil J. Picard Center for Child Development and Lifelong Learning.
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