Progressive Voices

Hitting students while the State Board of Education looks the other way

In 1985, when almost all states allowed the use of corporal punishment in the public schools, the North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation giving local school boards the legal authority to approve or ban the practice of hitting students as a form of discipline. At the time, all local districts in our state allowed the practice. The advocacy community asked the State Board of Education to study the issue of corporal punishment and take a position on its use. The Board declined, saying that the decision to hit students is a local one.

By 1995, about one-third of the 115 local school districts had banned corporal punishment, and the advocacy community once again asked the State Board to at least take a position on the practice. Once again, the Board declined, and even decided not to monitor corporal punishment in any way.

By 2005, after reviewing a growing body of research indicating that corporal punishment is ineffective and does not improve academic performance, 65 local boards had banned the practice. And the State Board still declined to take a position, and still declined to monitor the hitting of students.

The advocacy community finally had to go to the General Assembly to ask that the annual occurrence of corporal punishment become a required report to the State Board and to the General Assembly. That request was approved; effective for the 2010-2011 school year, and the first such report was presented to the State Board at its February meeting.

The report showed that just 17 local districts hit students a total of 891 times in the last school year, and that just three districts – Robeson, Columbus and McDowell – accounted for about eighty percent of the corporal punishment administered. What the Board did not know, because it has declined to pay attention, is that seven of the seventeen districts that hit students last year had already banned the practice, and an eighth – Columbus, a leading user – had announced an imminent ban, which has now come to fruition, making it the ninety-sixth local district to ban hitting students.

Once again, advocates approached the State Board. Despite individual members privately saying they are opposed to corporal punishment, the Board once again declined to make a public statement. The issue was not even on the Board’s March agenda, and there is little hope that it will be taken up in April. Apparently, Board members have not delved into the details of the report, which contains some quite troubling news.

The most discomforting news is that, as had been alleged, the data confirm that corporal punishment is disproportionately used in our public schools by gender, race and disability status of the student. For example:

Boys are four times more likely to be hit than girls.

Students with disabilities comprise about eight percent of school enrollment, but receive twenty-two percent of the corporal punishment.

American Indian students comprise about two percent of statewide school enrollment, but receive about thirty-five percent of the corporal punishment.

The racial disparity is driven by Robeson Public Schools, which alone accounts for forty-five percent of the corporal punishment statewide. The American Indian student enrollment in that district is forty-eight percent, but those students receive eighty-one percent of the corporal punishment.

These data are not in themselves proof of bias. That can be determined only by careful investigation. Such an investigation should be authorized by the State Board. Given its history with this issue, however, no one outside of Las Vegas would give odds on the State Board getting involved.

That means that personnel in the nineteen local districts that still allow corporal punishment may continue to walk the halls trying to curb violence and bullying by threatening the use of violence, or continue to slap students, even though slapping a small child is associated with concussions, because the law does not prohibit it and the State Board does not seem to care.

By the way, corporal punishment is defined in North Carolina as “the infliction of physical pain upon the body of a student as a disciplinary measure.” The lone legal caveat is to refrain from punishment that would require “medical attention beyond first aid.”

It’s true. That’s North Carolina law. You can look it up. For many of us, that’s quite scary. That’s why we are so frustrated that the State Board of Education declines to pay attention.

Tom Vitaglione is a Senior Fellow at Action for Children North Carolina.

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