The state has our hands tied. Kids are disrespectful and defiant. There’s absolutely nothing we can do to punish them that bothers them except spank them.
Those are the words of Pollock Elementary School teacher Erica Firmant as read by her husband, Louisiana State Representative Gabe Firment, during a legislative session last week. The bill proposed—House Bill 324—would have banned corporal punishment in public schools; in other words, it would have protected the safety and dignity of Louisiana’s children from state-sanctioned paddling.
Unfortunately, the bill failed to garner the votes necessary to pass.
Through this lens, the news from both Louisiana and Florida appears aberrant—something sensational and viral. However, the truth is this: paddling students in the American South is so commonplace that simply challenging the practice is unthinkable.
For all y’all living outside the Bible Belt, here are three myths about the topic of school-sanctioned violence that we at Arkansans Against School Paddling would like to debunk for you:
Myth #1: School Paddling is Irrelevant
For many educators in states like Massachusetts, Michigan, California, and New Jersey, where padding was banned in 1867, there exists no frame of reference for conversations about hitting children in schools; their teachers never hit them, and they, in turn, have never hit their students. Simply put: Their states’ legislative bans on corporal punishment in schools broke a cycle of violence, rendering the topic “extreme” or “antiquated” for future generations.
Meanwhile in states like Arkansas—in 2021—discipline policies in 67% of school districts still endorse hitting children. Arkansas’s students can be paddled for a number of reasons: from excessive tardies to “rough play.” And the administering of “licks” or “swats” is often based on the child’s age, sex, or “ability to bear the punishment”—an invisible pain threshold which never takes into account the lasting psychological trauma corporal punishment can cause.
To frame the issue of school paddling as solely “cultural” would misrepresent both science and history—and that lazy framing only perpetuates the problem. First, let’s recognize some facts: in states that practice such corrective violence, Black students are two-three times more likely to be struck. And although a students’ parent or guardian might approve of the punishment, paddling students is a proven legacy of white Supremacy.
State laws that permit the hitting of children in schools are as oppressive and inequitable as some state-mandated tests, technology and broadband disparities, and white-washed curriculum. No one defends the SAT or ACT by reframing criticism as a “culture war”—so let’s not let the perpetrators of corrective violence against children reframe it that way, either.
Myth #3: It’s a Southern Problem
Paddling students is not a “Southern problem”—it’s an American problem. As educators, we don’t reduce other social scourges—like police brutality—by localizing them. We don’t say “that’s a Minnesota problem” or “that’s an urban problem.” Instead, we recognize modern injustice as the inevitable result of our country’s centuries-long indifference. We work to recognize our own complicity and to disincentivize learning that doesn’t ensure a safer world for everyone.
As Americans, our interconnectedness is indisputable. Our principles are not demarcated by state lines, and chief among them is this: Children are our most vulnerable population. And it is our responsibility—as educators, as Americans—to ensure that they inherit a worldview not warped by institutionalized violence.
What should we do?
So, tweet your outrage! Share articles online about the risks of paddling students. Educate your colleagues about the issue. And engage in conversations with the same passion and bravery as you demonstrated in your comments about the senate runoff in Georgia and former President Trump’s border wall in Texas. And follow organizations like ours: Arkansans Against School Paddling.
Our website helps families identify which school districts in the state endorse hitting children. As an organization, we provide those districts with all the free resources they need to change their policies.
On behalf of children everywhere, we hope America’s educators—as well as Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden—will take a stand against corporal punishment in 2021.
Kaya Henderson leads the Global Learning Lab for Community Impact at Teach For All. There, she seeks to grow the impact of locally rooted, globally informed leaders, all over the world, who are catalyzing community and system-level change to provide children with the education, support, and opportunity to shape a better future. She is perhaps best known for serving as Chancellor of DC Public ...