Is Corporal Punishment Alive and Legal?
The use of corporal punishment
in public schools attracts strong supporters and even stronger
critics—few people are neutral. Surprisingly, the United
States stands almost alone among industrialized nations in allowing corporal
punishment in public education. Canada finally joined the mainstream by banning
this disciplinary technique in 2004.
Although we have no national prohibition on corporal punishment in schools, an
increasing number of states and local school districts have adopted laws or regulations
prohibiting its use. Since 1970, 28 states and the District of Columbia have
barred corporal punishment, and in 10 additional states, more than half of the
students are enrolled in school districts that ban this form of discipline. States
still permitting corporal punishment are disproportionately in the southern region
of the U.S.
The Supreme Court has rendered only one decision on this topic, Ingraham v.
Wright (1977), holding that the use of corporal punishment in public schools
does not violate Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process guarantees or
the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual governmental
punishment. Recognizing that state remedies are available, the Court reasoned
that challenges to excessive corporal punishment should be handled under state
But the Ingraham decision did not foreclose a successful challenge to corporal
punishment under the U.S. Constitution. Several federal appellate courts have recognized that excessive
corporal punishment can impair public school students’ Fourteenth Amendment
substantive due process protections against arbitrary and unreasonable government
action if the punishment shocks the conscience. This standard was met where a
coach knocked a student’s eye out of its socket with a metal lock and
where a teacher restrained a student until he lost consciousness and fell to
the floor. Yet, students must satisfy a very high standard to substantiate
that corporal punishment violates the Fourteenth Amendment, and most claims
have not been successful.
Students who are injured by teachers can always bring criminal or civil assault
and battery suits, which might result in fines and/or imprisonment for the teachers
or monetary awards for the victims. Where corporal punishment is banned by state
law, school board policy, or even action of a local school council, teachers
can be dismissed for insubordination if they repeatedly disregard such prohibitions.
And in schools that allow corporal punishment, educators are not required to
use it. Teachers who elect to corporally punish students should be certain their
actions are reasonable and preferably witnessed by another adult.
There is mounting criticism of corporal punishment, and more than 40 organizations,
including the American Bar Association, the American Psychological Association,
and the National Education Association, have gone on record opposing the use
of corporal punishment in schools. Although this discipline strategy is still
widely used in American schools, there has been a steady decline in incidents
of corporal punishment since the mid-1970s. If its use continues to decline,
perhaps the U.S. will move more in line with the policies and practices of other
Martha McCarthy is the Chancellor’s Professor at Indiana University.