A photo of Black children raising their hands in a classroom.

How It Is

For Black Children, Schools Are Intimidation Zones

With policing and paddling showing no signs of subsiding, the classroom is a space for destruction, not education, for students of color.

This article was made possible because of the generous support of DAME members.  We urgently need your help to keep publishing. Will you contribute just $5 a month to support our journalism?

It becomes more and more clear with each passing day that the goal of the American education system is not nor has ever been to empower children to transform society and resolve our social problems. Nor was the system created to help prepare diverse groups of young people to survive in mainstream avenues of society where they obtain the full benefits and privileges of productive citizenship.

Our school system is designed to sort children out, especially children of color and the poor, and leave many uneducated. Schools are also designed to control, suppress, and damage their self-esteem so they won’t grow up to raise resistance against the power structure.

From policing children’s hair to paddling to the criminalization of normal adolescent behaviors, schools have devolved into intimidation zones, where Black children especially are being scrutinized from the moment they enter the classroom. The suspension of students over hair and physical assaults against their bodies is a symptom of a larger pattern of viewing Black people as less worthy, less attractive, and less viable members of school communities unless they accommodate to standards of self-presentation which require them to change who they are. And sadly, parents can be complicit in harsh punishment because the schools prey on their fears.

In August, two Black girls from New Orleans were kicked out of their Catholic school over wearing hair extensions. In late September, the Texas attorney general backed a school in expelling a Black high-school student for refusing to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance. In late September in Charleston, South Carolina, concerned parents and teachers at the predominantly Black Burke High School complained to the director of communications for the county school district about sweltering temperatures. The director’s wife wrote a Facebook post griping about the complaints, suggesting that Black American students are better off than their “barefoot” African counterparts who “walk across mountain ranges, dodging herds of elephants and lions to get to school.” And, in mid-September, a three-year-old charter school outside Augusta, Georgia, announced they were introducing paddling as a form of punishment.

The Georgia School for Innovation and the Classics sent a consent form to parents to allow their child to be taken into an office to be paddled behind closed doors. Of the school’s total student body, 70 percent are white and 20 percent are black. The school form to parents read, “The student will place their hands on their knees or piece of furniture and will be struck on the buttocks with a paddle.” Parents who opt out of this punishment agree to have their child receive up to five days of suspension instead.

The school’s principal said that 100 parents had completed and returned the form by the start of the school year, with about one-third giving the school permission to hit their child.

The United States is the only country in the developed world where it is legal for teachers and administrators to beat kids at school. Paddling is still permitted in public schools in 18 states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming. The Department of Education estimates 106,000 students were paddled in public schools during the 2013-14 school year, a decline of 50,000 from the 2011-12 school year.

The practice is most widespread in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Alabama and Black students are disproportionately more likely to experience physical punishment than their white counterparts.  Paddling children in private schools is lawful in all but two states, Iowa and New Jersey—currently we have no federal statistics that measure how frequently this form of punishment is used in these institutions.

According to research by Elizabeth Gershoff, a professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas–Austin, corporal punishment in public schools is mainly concentrated in the South and its administration varies by state and district. Gershoff found that a Texas code allows school personnel to hit children with objects and to use “any other physical force” to control children, as long as it is in the name of discipline. Some districts recommend that schools use a “wooden paddle approximately 24 inches in length, three inches wide and a half-inch thick” that does not have holes, cracks, splinters, tape, or other foreign material. Most corporal punishment involves elementary-school students, which means that these paddles are often half the length of a child’s body.

The reasons teachers have given for hitting schoolchildren include fighting with fellow students, drinking, disruptive behavior, aggression, disorderly conduct, bullying, bus misbehavior, cell-phone use, inappropriate language, being late to class, failing to turn in homework, violating dress codes, running in the hallway, laughing in the hallway, sleeping in class, talking back to teachers, going to the bathroom without permission, mispronouncing words, and receiving bad grades.

Many researchers and child advocates have noted that in any other context, the act of an adult hitting another person with a board of this size would be considered assault with a weapon and would be punishable under criminal law.

Gershoff’s research also found that states that continue to allow corporal punishment have higher rates of child poverty and child mortality, lower college graduation rates, and lower per-pupil education expenditures than states that have banned school corporal punishment.

“It’s a form of child abuse in more than half the states. If a teacher hits a kid in Massachusetts, they can be arrested,” says Dan Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA. “Paddling schoolchildren is educationally unsound and it is harmful and a rejection of science.”

Losen says that decades of scientific research shows that hitting children, in any context, is harmful for their development, even when children show no signs of physical injury. Hitting children also places them at risk for a lowered I.Q., aggression and violence, lying and delinquency, and a host of physiological and psychological problems over the span of their lifetime. In the school context, paddling can cause children to fear their teachers, destroy their enthusiasm for learning and set the stage for serious emotional and behavioral problems. And for Black children, this form of punishment is often the first stage in the school-to-prison pipeline. Racial disparities in school corporal punishment are similar to those found for suspensions and expulsions, such that Black children receive all forms of school discipline at a higher rate than their White peers for the same misbehaviors.

Despite this latest news on the Georgia charter school’s decision to bring back paddling, Losen says he hasn’t seen an uptick in schools doing the same. Periodically there are schools that vote on this punishment but ultimately implementation of the policy has to have buy-in from the superintendent, school board, principal, parents, and school staff who are willing to hit children. Seriously, think about how that sounds: If you are an educator who can’t figure out how to discipline children without taking a wooden board and swinging it at them, you need to return your education or childhood development degrees to your alma mater.

The good thing is that more states school districts are learning about the science behind corporal punishment. Last year the Louisiana State Legislature passed a vote that forbids children with disabilities from being hit.

“Paddling is acceptable in communities where they are not educated about the harms of hitting kids. It’s acceptable in pockets in Black and white communities. They believe that it is helping.  Spare the rod, spoil the child dies hard,” Losen says.

Many Black folks continue to send their children to schools that embrace educational regimes with “no-excuses” and “zero-tolerance” practices, which disproportionately target students of color. We do this while ignoring how harsh physical punishment and other punitive psychological treatments deprive our children of the self-confidence and resilience needed for them to bring about change both in their personal lives and in hurting communities they live in. For too many Black children, schools are not a refuge from the whuppings they receive at home or the violence they witness in their neighborhoods—rather, schools become just another unsafe space, a zone of intimidation.

Throughout the nation, there has been inequitable state funding of K-12 education for low-income students and students of color, promoted by leaders of both political parties and corporate America in the name of cutting costs and lowering taxes. This divestment, coupled with a marked increase in standardized tests, has led to overcrowded classrooms, elimination of the arts, and growing disciplinary problems as public schools fail to provide culturally relevant curriculum and activities to engage and inspire students. Into the breach, promoted by the same forces that defund public schools, have come charter schools, which promise rigor, safety, equity, and better educational outcomes to desperate parents seeking alternatives to crumbling schools that the power brokers starved of resources in the first place. But what many charter schools offer instead are Draconian discipline and relentless test preparation.

And herein lies a great irony …

The elites promoting charter schools, from which they profit in numerous ways—from generous tax credits and breaks to the exorbitant fees paid to management companies running these schools—cater to the conviction of many Black parents that their children can succeed only in the harshest and most intimidating of environments. Charter schools have been very effective at marketing themselves to Black parents by claiming that harsh disciplinary measures and constant test prep will put their children on a path to college rather than prison, the streets, or a life of permanent poverty. Given the fears that Black parents have of losing their children to the streets and crime and the cultural belief that harsh discipline is the only way to save them, the charters’ sales pitch has found its way to receptive ears, even though the evidence is not there to support their promises of more successful outcomes.

Charter schools have survived, profited, and now expanded their market because they have shrewdly assessed and banked on some Black parents’ deep-seated fears and preference for strict discipline without the paddle and psychological intimidation. It is like selling violent movies or music, but in this case they are selling a violent education. The CEOs and principals justify the tough disciplinary methods and governing ideology by claiming that it is what parents want and what Black children need, regardless of the race of the teacher. Charter schools proudly market themselves to parents as institutions where no behavior problems will be tolerated and children will learn in an orderly environment. While the paddling of Black students in segregated districts in the South is likely being done mostly by Black educators steeped in the culture and communities of their students, the educational violence that Black children are being subjected to in charter schools is more likely being carried out by an interracial cast of educators who are not subjecting white middle-class students to this kind of punishment. Charter schools would have a hard time marketing this model of harsh discipline and pedagogy to middle-class white parents.

The psychological intimidation practiced by charter schools, just like the paddling practiced by schools in the rural South, could not be sustained without support from Black parents. And Black children all over the country are being abused and psychologically impaired as a result. Yet there is so much money invested in charter schools, largely because of a 39 percent federal tax credit, that many interests in both political parties, along with the major players in today’s post-industrial economy—bankers, hedge-fund managers, and real-estate developers—are committed to defunding public schools in support of expanding charters, and in the process they have shamelessly pressured governors and mayors in states such as New York, Washington, New Jersey, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, and elsewhere. So many jobs have been created by this misery industry built off Black parental fears and punishment practices, be they in foster care, criminal justice, or charter schools. But if Black parents didn’t buy into this idea that our children need strict forms of discipline at home and in schools, these modern-day Jim Crow brokers couldn’t profit on this kind of education.

Far too many Black parents justify this kind of harsh punishment of Black children, at home and in schools, by declaring that “these kids today are out of control.” And this is usually uttered by a generation of adults who had worse rates of juvenile crime, drug abuse, and other problems. It is sad that so many of us speak the grammar of white supremacy when it comes to children of color. Instead of scapegoating our children and beating them, we should be turning our rage at the system and creating a healthier world in which young people can thrive.

Before you go, we hope you’ll consider supporting DAME’s journalism.

Today, just tiny number of corporations and billionaire owners are in control the news we watch and read. That influence shapes our culture and our understanding of the world. But at DAME, we serve as a counterbalance by doing things differently. We’re reader funded, which means our only agenda is to serve our readers. No both sides, no false equivalencies, no billionaire interests. Just our mission to publish the information and reporting that help you navigate the most complex issues we face.

But to keep publishing, stay independent and paywall free for all, we urgently need more support. During our Spring Membership drive, we hope you’ll join the community helping to build a more equitable media landscape with a monthly membership of just $5.00 per month or one-time gift in any amount.

Support Dame Today

Become a member!