In “Such, Such Were the Joys,” George Orwell’s indelible remembrance of the British boarding school you thank God your parents never sent you to, the author recalls being beaten—at age 8, for the crime of bed-wetting—so energetically that his master breaks the riding-crop employed for the flogging:
Sim continued for a length of time that frightened and astonished me—about five minutes, it seemed—ending up by breaking the riding crop. The bone handle went flying across the room.
“Look what you’ve made me do!” he said furiously, holding up the broken crop.
“The bone handle went flying across the room”—it all sounds like savage, Billy Budd-type stuff, right? Nothing that would take place in our enlightened 21st-century democracy. Except when it does.
A Washington Post report earlier this week called attention to the widespread but under-reported-on phenomenon of the school-sanctioned corporal punishment, primarily paddling, that is still legal in an incredible 19 states. To show how formalized the practice remains, the Post quotes the Greenwood, Mississippi, school handbook:
“Corporal punishment for use in this district,” it says, “is defined as punishing or correcting a student by striking the student on the buttocks with a paddle.”
Such punishment, it goes on, must be carried out by the principal or assistant principal and “shall not exceed five swats with a paddle.” The punishment does not constitute “assault, simple assault, aggravated assault, battery, negligence or child abuse.”
An earlier Washington Post piece found that “one child is hit in public school every 30 seconds somewhere in the United States.” But while corporal punishment is legal in states as geographically diverse as Florida and Wyoming, it happens most commonly in several states in the South: Mississippi (18.73 percent of total paddlings in the U.S.), Alabama (16.34 percent), Georgia (7.36 percent), and Texas (17.13 percent).
Not surprisingly, the first three of these states also have among the highest concentrations of black students. According to the Post article, “[b]lacks constitute about 16 percent of public school students in the United States but 35 percent of those who receive corporal punishment.”
What is surprising is that not all or even most parents object to the paddlings; in one Mississippi district, approximately 80 percent of parents signed consent forms allowing their children to be paddled. As a story in the Hechinger Report last year made clear, communities in the Deep South where in-school corporal punishment occurs are more divided over its efficacy:
Defenders of the practice [in a Mississippi county] argue that corporal punishment is not only a rite of passage and an effective discipline tool, but mandated by the biblical proverb “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” They also claim there’s a disproportionate need for the paddle in a place where poor children of color will be afforded few breaks down the road if they don’t learn to follow the “rules” early on.
But as Jamelle Bouie pointed out in a Slate story debunking various mythical “black pathologies,” it’s not just rural Southern blacks who approve of corporal punishment as a disciplinary strategy:
Consider that while most Americans support spanking (about 70 percent), born-again Christians are more likely to support than non-born-again Christians (80 percent versus 65 percent), and Southerners are more likely to support it than people from other parts of the country. What’s more, support for spanking is strongly related to low levels of education, high levels of poverty, and high levels of environmental stress.
The good news is that these principal paddlings have been declining over the past decade. Maybe it’s because schools are finally reconsidering the pedagogical value of lining kids up against the wall and swatting their backsides? Alas, no: This is enlightened, 21st-century America we’re talking about. A big motivator, according to the Post, is terror of lawsuits.