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Calling for End to Corporal Punishment in Schools

Author: U.S. Department of Education : Contact:

Published: 2016-12-01 : (Rev. 2016-12-02)

Synopsis and Key Points:

U.S. Education Secretary sends letter urging state leaders to end use of corporal punishment in schools, a practice repeatedly linked to harmful short-term and long-term outcomes for students.

Main Digest

U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr. has sent a letter urging state leaders to end the use of corporal punishment in schools, a practice repeatedly linked to harmful short-term and long-term outcomes for students.

"Our schools are bound by a sacred trust to safeguard the well-being, safety, and extraordinary potential of the children and youth within the communities they serve," King said. "While some may argue that corporal punishment is a tradition in some school communities, society has evolved and past practice alone is no justification. No school can be considered safe or supportive if its students are fearful of being physically punished. We strongly urge states to eliminate the use of corporal punishment in schools-- a practice that educators, civil rights advocates, medical professionals, and researchers agree is harmful to students and which the data show us unequivocally disproportionally impacts students of color and students with disabilities."

There is a wide consensus from teachers' groups - including both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association - as well as the National PTA, medical and mental health professionals, and civil rights advocates that corporal punishment has no place in our schools. Eighty organizations, include the National Women's Law Center, are releasing a letter this week calling on states and policymakers to end this practice.

"It is a disgrace that it is still legal in states to physically punish a child in school. Students are subject to corporal punishment for something as minor as cell phone use or going to the bathroom without permission. And students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately victims of physical punishment," said Fatima Goss Graves, Senior Vice President for Program at the National Women's Law Center. "Not only does corporal punishment inflict pain and injury, it also stifles students' ability to learn. Policymakers must eradicate violence against schoolchildren and instead foster learning environments that are safe and productive. This barbaric practice must end."

In the short term, students who receive this form of punishment show an increase in aggressive and defiant behavior - the opposite of the intended outcome.[1] In the long term, students who experience physical punishment in school are more likely to later grapple with substance abuse and mental health issues, including depression, personality disorders and post-traumatic stress.[2]

Corporal punishment in school is also associated with poorer academic outcomes. Research has shown, for example, that corporal punishment can affect students' cognitive functions,[3] lessening brain development,[4] verbal ability,[5] problem-solving skills in young children,[6] and lowering academic achievement.[7]

Corporal punishment has been banned in 28 states and D.C. and has been abandoned by individual districts in many others. Despite that progress, more than 110,000 students across the country were subjected to corporal punishments in 2013-14, according to the latest version of the Department's Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC).

What's more alarming is that the CRDC shows that corporal punishment is used overwhelmingly on male students and is much more commonly administered to African-American students of all genders. In nearly all of the states where the practice is permitted, students with disabilities were subjected to corporal punishment at a higher rate than students without disabilities.

For more on the CRDC data, the Department is also releasing new maps that show where the use of corporal punishment occurs across the country.

The letter from the Secretary was sent to governors and chief state school officers and provides links to resources that can be promoted by those state leaders and adopted by district and school leaders.

The letter builds on the Obama Administration's work with states and districts through its Rethink Discipline campaign, which has focused attention on the importance of school disciplinary approaches that foster safe, supportive, and productive learning environments in which students can thrive. These efforts include

The letter also advances the goals of the President's My Brother's Keeper Initiative, which was launched in 2014 to address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color and ensure that all young people can reach their full potential.


[1] Gershoff, E. T., Spanking and Child Development: We Know Enough Now to Stop Hitting Our Children, Child Dev. Perspective (2013), 7: 133--137, Sheehan, M. J. & Watson, M. W., Reciprocal influences between maternal discipline techniques and aggression in children and adolescents, Aggressive Behavior (2008), 34, 245--255.

[2] Afifi, T.O., et al., Physical Punishment and Mental Disorders: Results from a Nationally Representative U.S. Sample, Pediatrics, Volume 130, Number 2 (August 2012), available at Gershoff, E.T., Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associated Child Behaviors and Experiences: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 128, No. 4, 539--579 (2002).

[3] Straus, M.A., and Mallie J. Paschall. Corporal punishment by mothers and development of children's cognitive ability: a longitudinal study of two nationally representative age cohorts. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma (2009); 18: 459-483.

[4] Tomoda, A., Hanako Suzuki, Keren Rabi, Yi-Shin Sheu, Ann Polcari, and Martin H. Teicher, Reduced Prefrontal Cortical Gray Matter Volume in Young Adults Exposed to Harsh Corporal Punishment, Neuroimage (2009 Aug), 47(Suppl 2): T66--T71.

[5] MacKenzie, M.J., Eric Nicklas, Jane Waldfogel, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn. Corporal punishment and child behavioral and cognitive outcomes through 5 years-of-age: Evidence from a contemporary urban birth cohort study. Infant Child Dev. (2012 January/February); 21(1): 3--33.

[6] Talwar V., Carlson S. M. and Lee K. (2011), "Effects of a Punitive Environment on Children's Executive Functioning: A Natural Experiment," Social Development, 26 July 2011; see also Hyman, I. A., Corporal punishment, psychological maltreatment, violence, and punitiveness in America: Research, advocacy, and public policy. Applied and Preventive Psychology (1995), 4, 113--130.

[7] Hyman 1995; see also Dupper, David R., and Amy E. Montgomery Dingus, Corporal punishment in US public schools: A continuing challenge for school social workers, Children & Schools 30(4) (2008): 243-250, available at

For more information about the Administration's work on school climate and discipline go to

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