Our collective care and concern for the health and well-being of our nation’s children is one thing that many of us can agree upon. We want what is best for children so they can grow and develop to their full potential. That means we must be stewards of their success by ensuring that the policies and practices in America’s education system support optimal development.
Too many children experience child abuse, neglect and associated adversity in their homes or community environment. Organizations such as the National Education Association are making concerted efforts to create and promote safe, welcoming and inclusive school settings where children can thrive — what some have termed “trauma-informed” schools. This is especially important for children who are experiencing abuse or neglect. But what happens when these “safe havens” become sites of state-sanctioned violence?
In 19 states, it is legal for children to be hit — e.g., corporal punishment, paddling — by personnel in school settings, often times with a wooden paddle. Research overwhelmingly finds that corporal punishment disrupts normal brain development and increases the risk for substance abuse and mental health problems such as depression and suicide. There is no scientific study to date that finds hitting children promotes healthy child development — not one.
But spanking isn’t as bad as physical abuse, or is it? Research finds that children who are spanked experience similarly negative outcomes as those who are physically abused. Findings such as these have led the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children and the National Initiative to End Corporal Punishment, among others, to provide strong recommendations against the use of corporal punishment in all settings.
As of April 2020, Japan became the 59th country globally to ban the use of corporal punishment in all settings, including homes and schools. While the use and acceptance of corporal punishment by parents and caregivers in the United States has been on the decline for the past few decades, large portions of the population continue to support its use. In a recent survey of over 3,000 U.S. adults, conducted by Prevent Child Abuse America, 42 percent of caregivers reported spanking their children in the past month. But when the question about banning the practice of corporal punishment in schools was raised, only 18 percent of respondents disagreed with such a ban.
On June 10, Reps. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) and Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) recently reintroduced the Protecting Our Students in School Act of 2021, which takes steps to eliminate the harmful, antiquated practice of hitting children in public schools. In addition to removing corporal punishment in public institutions, the bill puts in place measures to create supportive school climates with positive discipline strategies that are backed by science.
Proponents of corporal punishment in schools speculate that by removing the practice, rates of behavioral problems will skyrocket. However, there is no evidence from those states that have banned corporal punishment in schools that children and youths fail to control their behavior. Data show that schools that implement what is known as “positive behavior supports in schools,” a component of the McEachin bill, have lower rates of alcohol and drug use, lower rates of bullying and peer rejection, and reductions in student discipline referrals within schools.
It is time to end the harmful practice of hitting children in America’s public schools.
Children deserve an education system that supports their learning and development, not one that inflicts harm. We must ensure that all children grow and learn in safe, supportive environments.