Can teachers hit students in American public schools? In a few remaining places, it’s legal and still practiced on occasion.
When school officials use physical force as a consequence for a student, it is called corporal punishment.
While it has become quite rare in United States public schools, corporal punishment today usually involves a phone call home from a school administrator and a wooden paddle. In schools where this is currently practiced, parents have a permission form on file in the office.
There are no federal laws against spanking in schools. In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its Ingraham v. Wright decision that corporal punishment is constitutional.
In the United States, there are currently 19 states that do not have laws against the use of physical force against students. In those 19 states, school districts each form their own policy through the school board, which is often listed in their student handbook and easily available online.
According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, the states that allow corporal punishment include: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming.
However, very few schools actually still utilize physical discipline at all. The 19 states which have no law against corporal punishment have argued that this decision should be left up to school districts and their school boards.
It is hard to find current data on this topic. However, even as long ago as the 2011-2012 school year, corporal punishment was rare even in states where it’s legal. Only 12% of students in those 19 states attended schools that year that reported instances of corporal punishment.
Most reported cases of corporal punishment came out of Arkansas and Alabama, where nearly 50% of students attended a school district that uses corporal punishment.
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Examples of School District Policy Statements about Corporal Punishment
The following are examples from various Code of Conduct books across the 19 states where the use of corporal punishment is allowed.
Note: It’s highly unusual for large, urban school districts in these 19 states to allow for such punishment. Corporal punishment in schools is found occasionally in small, rural school districts throughout the Bible Belt, where voters believe that to spare the rod is to spoil the child. I included Tuscaloosa here as an exception to the rule.
Tuscaloosa County School System: “Corporal punishment can be administered in accordance with Tuscaloosa County Board Policy. If a parent wishes for corporal punishment to be an option for discipline, they must come to the office and sign the corporal punishment form. Corporal punishment will NOT be administered to any student without signed authorization of the primary custodial parent.” (Alabama)
Paradise Independent School District: “Corporal punishment—spanking or paddling a student—may be used as a discipline management technique in accordance with the Student Code of Conduct and district policy FO(LOCAL). However, in accordance with law, the district may not administer corporal punishment if a student’s parent submits a signed, written statement prohibiting its use. A parent who does not want corporal punishment administered to his or her child must submit a written statement to the campus principal stating this decision. This signed statement must be submitted each school year. A parent may revoke this prohibition at any time during the school year by providing a signed statement to the campus principal.” (Texas)
Vilas School District RE-5: “In dealing with disruptive students, any person employed by the district may, within the scope of his employment, use reasonable and appropriate physical intervention or force as necessary for the following purposes:
- To restrain a student from an act of wrong-doing
- To quell a disturbance threatening physical injury to others
- To obtain possession of weapons or other dangerous objects upon a student or within the control of a student
- For the purpose of self-defense
- For the protection of persons or property
- For the preservation of order
Any such acts are not in conflict with the legal definition of child abuse and shall not be construed to constitute corporal punishment within the meaning and intention of this policy. Reasonable corporal punishment may be administered to students pursuant to regulations developed by the administration and approved by the Board. Corporal punishment is limited to spanking or paddling the student, and is governed by the following guidelines:
- The student is told the reason for the corporal punishment.
- Corporal punishment may be administered by the superintendent, principal or designee, with parental permission.
- The instrument to be used will be approved by the superintendent.
- A record will be maintained of each instance of corporal punishment.” (Colorado)
Current Recommendations on Corporal Punishment in Schools
The World Health Organization states that evidence shows corporal punishment increases children’s behavioural problems over time and has no positive outcomes.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry opposes the use of corporal punishment and supports legislation against it. They argue that any discipline intended to cause physical pain does more harm than good.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also opposes the practice.
The American Psychological Association is another institution that does not support corporal punishment.
Arguments Against Corporal Punishment in Schools
First, there are serious concerns that spanking in schools is a discriminatory practice. The research shows that white children do not experience corporal punishment at the same rate as black students. In some school districts, black children are 500% more likely to suffer the wooden paddle than their white counterparts, even when controlling for other variables. See this report out of the University of Texas and Penn State. This report also finds that special needs students are also more likely to receive spanking at school.
This article from the Arkansas Times also touches heavily on the topic.
Second, mental health professionals and counselors believe that since children learn by watching adults, spanking is likely to cause children to begin hitting to solve problems, as well.
Third, it has not been shown to be an effective discipline strategy over time. While it may temporarily be effective at stopping unwanted behaviors in students, the disciplinary practice of spanking or paddling does not reduce negative behaviors in the long term. It’s ineffective form of punishment, which is reason alone to abandon the practice.
Finally, many Americans believe that whether the consequence is administered calmly or in a reactionary fashion, the act of spanking is not any different than physical abuse in the traditional sense.
Can teachers face criminal charges for hitting a student?
Absolutely. If a teacher or other school staff uses physical violence against any member of the student population outside the framework of district protocol, they can be charged with assault. Here is a deeply troubling video where you can see a substitute teacher in Texas violently attacking a student.
In most places where paddling or spanking is still practiced, public school teachers must still contact parents first, document the disciplinary action, and ensure that a permission form is on file before making physical contact with the student.
There are other instances, such as breaking up a student fight, where teachers may use “reasonable force” to stop dangerous behaviors from taking place. This might require teachers to stand between students and pull them apart, for example.
You can see that both of those instances are very different from what is documented in the video above.
It’s worth mentioning that post Covid, students returning from virtual learning showed an increase in bad behavior in the classroom. More students than ever before are acting out and hitting their teachers. It has raised the question of how teachers can appropriately defend themselves from students who put their teachers at risk.
What CAN a teacher do to punish a student?
Since using corporal punishment is so rarely allowed in the United States, teachers have a range of other options to administer more appropriate consequences for students who misbehave. All of these are considered acceptable in most public and private schools.
- Loss of rewards – While other students earn Dojo points or table points to earn prizes, other students might miss the opportunity.
- Time Wasted/Time Served – If you waste the teacher’s time with off-task behavior, you might be required to make up those minutes after school.
- You break it/you fix it – Whether you hurt someone’s feelings or lost control of your body and hurt someone, you have to make it right.
- Moving seats – If the people you’re near cause you to lose focus, you may have to move seats.
- Taking away phones – Phones should never be a distraction at school and are not required to be on the student’s person. Teachers and school personnel can collect them for the day.
- Isolated lunch – Eating lunch alone can be an effective and fair consequence, especially for highly social students who don’t make good use of their time in class/
- Exercise during recess – Students need the opportunity to burn energy and get sunshine, but they can be made to walk the perimeter of the playground during recess instead of playing freely.
- Try again – When students are loud in the hallway, run in the cafeteria, or line up too slowly, or fail collectively at some other procedure, teachers may ask them to try it again. Students often hate it because it’s so boring; whereas teachers appreciate that students get to practice appropriate school behaviors that save time in the long run.
- Calling home – If a student repeatedly misbehaves in class, a teacher may call home or hand the phone to the student to discuss the problematic behavior with a parent.
- After-school detention – Since this consequence can inconvenience parents as well, it’s a good choice when other interventions are not working. Often parents will finally decide to begin taking away privileges when school consequences begin to interfere with family life.
- Time out – Students may be asked to separate from the group and take a few breathers at the back of the class, which may involve missing out on a special activity.
- Missed field trips – If students receive a certain number of “write-ups” or other documented school discipline, they may be required to stay at school when the field trip comes around at the end of the semester or unit of study.
- Reflection forms – Reflection forms can be a productive use of time. Students in time-out may be required to thoughtfully fill out a form about their behavior before rejoining the group.
- Verbal or Non-Verbal Redirect – As an early intervention, teachers can verbally or non-verbally request a behavior change.
- Check In/Check Out – Students who continually have behavior challenges across multiple classrooms may be issued a check-in/check-out form by an administrator. This requires teachers to circle a number of points at the end of every class, sign the form, and then students report back to the counselor or administrator at the end of each day to either earn a reward, receive a consequence, or have a discussion about behavior.
Can a teacher make students do push-ups or run laps?
Both of these consequences are considered corporal punishment, so they follow the same rules as spanking or paddling. In other words, this practice is legal in 19 states but school district policy often requires teachers and administrators to follow a certain protocol before this consequence can be administered.
These consequences are most likely to take place under the leadership of a PE or gym coach, and may be considered more acceptable in this setting. However, many experts believe that using physical activity as a punishment comes with its own set of problems. Students may come to believe that exercise is something to be avoided, especially if they’re not being raised in active households where physical activity is celebrated and routine.
Public school students across the country very rarely face the possibility of corporal punishment, but it does still exist, and some places continue to use physical punishment at a surprising rate. To read more about legislative efforts and state laws across the country, see the following:
- Memphis, Tennessee schools one of the last large school districts to ban spanking in 2004
- Colorado Springs lawmakers clashing over latest corporal punishment legislative bill