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And then there were two: A brief (and tortuous) history of corporal punishment in our public schools

When children returned to North Carolina’s public schools for the new year, only students in two districts, Graham and Robeson, faced the possibility of being hit by school officials. This is tremendous progress in a state where corporal punishment was used liberally in the recent past.

Even in the counties where corporal punishment remains, its use is in decline. In the 2015-16 school year Graham County schools used corporal punishment just 22 times, down fifty percent from the prior year. All of the occurrences were meted out by the male principal of Robbinsville High. The thought of him paddling teenagers, particularly girls, behind closed doors is disconcerting to most people. We hope that the local board concurs soon.

Robeson County schools used corporal punishment 35 times in the 2015-16 school year, down sixty percent from the prior year, and a remarkable ninety percent from just a few years ago. Traditionally, the practice is used at just a few elementary schools, and the primary recipients are student members of the Lumbee Tribe. Once again, we hope that the new members of the local board will make corporal punishment a relic of the past in Robeson.

The other 113 local school districts prohibit the practice, with the Macon County School Board being the latest to ban corporal punishment just a few weeks ago. While we haven’t completely eliminated corporal punishment in our public schools, we’ve come a long way.

In the early 1980s, all local school districts used corporal punishment, and there were reasonable odds that any given public school student would be hit by a school official during the school year. Parents were not required to be involved, and there was no reporting, so there are no accurate counts of corporal punishment occurrences. However, given data from other states, it is reasonable to assume that the practice was used more than 10,000 times annually.

That began to change in 1985 when the General Assembly considered a proposal to prohibit corporal punishment statewide. Although that proposal did not pass, a statute was enacted giving local school boards the authority to prohibit the practice.

Many local school boards, which usually include experienced educators, banned corporal punishment in their jurisdictions. With encouragement from a large coalition of professional associations and advocacy organizations, by 2000, about half of the 115 local school districts had prohibited corporal punishment.

In the ensuing decade, there would be statewide statutes giving parents of children with disabilities – and then the parents of all students – the right to opt their children out of corporal punishment in counties where it was still allowed. In addition, districts were required to report occurrences by grade, age, race, and school. Finally, as part of a recodification of education statutes, corporal punishment was legally defined as “intentionally inflicting pain on the body of a student.” Excessive force was defined as a student needing medical attention as a result of being hit. It’s truly sad that our state laws explicitly legalize the intentional infliction of pain on children.

In 2011, the State Board of Education passed a resolution recommending to the General Assembly that corporal punishment be prohibited statewide. Though legislators declined to take action yet again, more local districts dropped the practice, and in 2016 there are just two districts still hitting students as a form of discipline.

Though it now occurs here rarely, North Carolina remains on the list of nineteen states that allow corporal punishment, which tarnishes our state’s image and, most importantly, means it is still legal for school officials to intentionally inflict pain on children. It is beyond time for our state’s elected officials to stop this ineffective and archaic practice. Our children deserve better.

Tom Vitaglione

Tom Vitaglione has spent the last four decades fighting for the health and safety of North Carolina’s children. As NC Child’s volunteer Senior Fellow, Tom is one of the state’s leading voices for maternal and child health. Tom received his MPH from Columbia University. He is passionate about the Yankees, Knicks, Rangers, and Giants, and has more awards named after him than anyone else in the NC Child office.