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Discipline and Punishment

Discipline and Punishment

Sections within this essay:

Current Issues
Origin of Corporal Punishment

Codes of Conduct
Creating Codes of Conduct
Content of Codes

Students' Constitutional Rights and Selected Cases
Columbine and Its Aftermath: Zero Tolerance
State Laws Regarding Corporal Punishment
Emerging Disciplinary Theories
Additional Resources
Center for Effective Discipline
National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP)
National Education Association (NEA)


Current Issues

In the 1990s and 2000s, educators, law enforcement agencies, governments, courts, parents, and the general citizenry in the United States considered new and troubling questions pertaining to student conduct. The late 1990s witnessed a number of spectacular on-campus crimes by juveniles, including acts of murder, suicide, assault, and massive property damage. The seriousness of these events brought attention to the problems public schools face in managing students who act out in life-threatening criminal ways. Clampdown reaction to enhanced security and student protection competed with legal concerns about student constitutional rights, particularly the right to due process. Other widespread crimes in schools, such as physical conflicts between students and student drug use, weapon possession, and theft, disrupted the academic setting and all too often frustrated the true goals of education: teaching and learning.


The word discipline is akin to the word disciple. Discipline in one sense means learning, just as the word disciple refers to one who learns. Additional meanings of discipline suggest the complexity of the subject as it pertains to individuals (in this case specifically minors) and the U.S. public school system. Discipline refers to training and experience that corrects, molds, and strengthens individuals' mental faculties and moral character. It also refers to punishment that intends to correct and that is enforced by those in authority or may be self-imposed.

Discipline likewise refers to the control gained by enforcing obedience, and it pertains to the systematic orderly behavior defined by codes or rules set forth by institutions for their members. Moreover, discipline refers to self-control and to the development of skills that help individuals resist temptation, act positively, and function both independently and cooperatively in ways that enhance personal development and community life. All of these definitions have been central to educators' efforts to find the most effective and useful way to support child development and learning.

Origin of Corporal Punishment

In the colonial era, the Puritan belief that humankind is innately tainted by the Original Sin of Adam and Eve led adults to see children as contaminated by an evil element that needed to be driven out by force. Puritans believed that all disobedience and academic error was the work of Satan, and children's innate proclivity for evil had to be destroyed through pain and humiliation. The idea that suffering can correct unwanted behavior became fundamental to institutional design, whether that design was the stocks in which prisoners were displayed for public abuse or the raised stools and dunce caps intended to correct student misbehavior or ignorance through humiliation. "To spare the rod," it was believed, led inevitably to spoiling the child, so slapping, spanking, and whipping were generally understood as beneficial educational tools. These beliefs persisted. Indeed, as late as 1977, in Ingraham v. Wright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that spanking did not violate students' rights, noting the widespread use of corporal punishment to maintain discipline in educational settings. Corporal punishment remained legal there-after in more than 20 states.


The U.S. Constitution does not address the subject of public education. Apparently the founding fathers thought the implementation of schools ought to be the sole responsibility of the states. Initially, education was for the wealthy, and a belief persisted through the eighteenth century that poor individuals were not educable or were not worthy of being educated. In 1852, however, then secretary of state of Massachusetts Horace Mann urged that states be obliged to offer public education to all children. The revolutionary idea behind this plea was that all individuals could and should be educated irrespective of economic class.

During the middle of the nineteenth century, some U.S. educators studied European models, such as the theories of Philipp Emanuel von Fellen-berg (1771–1844), who urged that corporal punishment not be used for academic errors and suggested that learning occurred best with encouragement and kindness. Francis Parker introduced European ideas into the public school system in Quincy, Illinois. What came to be known as the progressive Quincy Movement attached kindergarten to elementary education and extended into the early grades the idea of learning through play. These pedagogical developments examined connections between education and discipline and considered teachers' roles in creating environments conducive to learning.

By 1910 attendance at public school was mandatory; children were thus absent on a daily basis from parental direction and placed under the authority of educators. This transfer extended teachers' roles to parental disciplinarians; teachers functioned in loco parentis, meaning in the place of parents. During the first decades of the 1900s, as teachers were stepping further into these parental roles, state legal systems were beginning to evolve ways to handle juvenile offenders which intended to distinguish them from adult perpetrators. One value attached to this development asserted that while adults should be punished for their crimes, children should be rehabilitated for theirs, thus formalizing a beginning to the separation between juvenile misconduct and suffering as its remedy.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, good discipline was evinced as students sitting quietly while they learned by rote. The conventional wisdom saw education as a process of controlling student behavior while information was transferred from teacher to student. This model continues to shape concepts about classroom activities and goals. Challenging this model, however, were the increasingly popular post-World War II theories of Benjamin Spock (1903–1998), who disapproved of rigid child-rearing techniques and urged adults, parents and teachers alike, to be more affectionate and flexible. Some critics of Spock's theories asserted that they contributed to a growing attitude of permissiveness and relativity that blurred children's understanding of right and wrong and encouraged self-defeating traits like selfishness, indolence, or noncompliance.

In the second half of the twentieth century, healthcare professionals and educators became more informed about how student misbehavior may be connected to physiological or psychological problems, like attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity, or emotional disturbance. Changes in the family unit, increase in the Hollywood celebration of violence, and effects of illegal drug use also affected students' ability and willingness to learn in school. Moreover, in the 1990s and 2000s, juveniles committed serious felonies on school property, some of which converted schools temporarily to war zones. Reactions to these events caused many people to advocate for a return to more stringent controls of students, which in some circles acquired to the label, zero tolerance.

Codes of Conduct

In taking charge of students and teaching them, twentieth-century educators repeatedly faced the challenge of designing codes of conduct. Doing so required attention to multiple and sometimes seemingly conflicting issues: school organizational needs, the goals of education, and the nebulous area of personal rights both for those in charge and for those being controlled. Educators had to identify features conducive for learning and then set forth rules and consequences for misconduct that would allow problem children to be handled constructively while the behaving majority of students continued to learn without disruption. In short, educators had to define ways to support classroom productivity, encourage student academic progress, and bring misbehaving individuals back to positive conduct so that they could resume learning. In this task, educators, administrators, and staff became increasingly conscious of legal issues connected to students' rights, juvenile legal status, and the handling of student crime. All of these issues were addressed independently by different school boards across the nation and handled differently by school boards and courts over time.

Creating Codes of Conduct

The issues involved in the process of developing these codes of conduct constitute an important part of pedagogical debate and ongoing courtroom deliberation. For example, some judicial decisions have attempted to define those school requirements and regulations which a court would deem "reasonable." Under these decisions, a properly written document must meet four criteria in order to carry a legal presumption of validity:

  • The rules had to be in writing: Regulations students had to obey without a specific verbal command must be in writing.
  • The rules had to be specific: Policies had to clearly stated to students, and without referring to an outside source or document the rules had to explain what was expected and what was prohibited.
  • The writing had to be authorized: The writer of the rules had to have the authority to define them.
  • The written rules had to be published: The code of conduct had to be printed and distributed, for example in student handbooks, in letters home to parents, in public announcements during class time and assemblies, and in postings on bulletin boards.

Richard Curwin, a professor of Education at San Francisco State University, devised criteria for making codes of conduct more effective. His suggestions were:

  • To use positive rather than negative statements
  • To be definite about proper and prohibited behavior
  • To be brief
  • To spell out consequences

Thus, the courts began the process of educating the educators on how to arrange the business of school so that when it responded to misbehavior its rulings would be deemed valid in the legal setting.

Content of Codes

In light of their wisdom, experience, and training, educators have devised codes of conduct to meet their schools' particular goals and challenges. Some school codes employ step programs that distinguish first-time offenders from repeat offenders. These codes hand down mild penalties for first-offense students but then graduate the penalties for the misconduct of repeat offenders. In these cases, students face consequences determined by their records of behavior. Thus, for a repeat offender, a minor infraction might carry the serious penalty of suspension while the same infraction might elicit only a verbal reminder for the first-time offender. Some schools set aside special classrooms for extra training in matters of self-control, conflict resolution, and cooperation. Schools elicit parents' participation and support in encouraging their children back to positive behavior and academic progress.

Discipline policies state clearly that rules benefit everyone in the educational community and are in effect inside school buildings, on school property, inside school-owned vehicles, and at school-sponsored activities on or off campus. Codes include rules about attendance, absence, and tardiness. They outline steps for parents to take in excusing their children from class and instruct teachers how to keep records of student attendance. Patterns of unexcused absence or tardiness are quantified and carry penalties or repercussions that relate to the extent of the patterns of absence. Misbehaving students might be detained in the classroom after other students are free to go on to non-classroom activities, or they might be required to attend a Saturday detention period. During these times, students might be given extra academic work or be required to perform maintenance chores on school property. Repeat offenders are subject to a number of potential penalties, including the following: removal from school; removal from class to a study room; placement in an on-sight suspension area; suspension for a specified time; and expulsion. Although individuals who act out are arguably the ones most in need of education and support, they tend to be separated from others.

When students break the law on school property, police officers must take over for educators. Students who use alcohol or other drugs, who have in their possession or deliver to others controlled substances, who carry weapons, and who assault others, are all subject to the same laws they would face elsewhere in the community. Therefore, these forms of misconduct are not within the school's jurisdiction solely. Students can be charged for crimes committed on school property; they can go to court and face court decisions that place them in juvenile detention centers. Clearly, school codes must address a vast range of conduct, take into consideration innumerable factors that lie in or beyond the education setting. The codes must respond legally, in line with community, state, and federal laws on issues connected to discrimination, harassment, gender, and disability. Academic codes of conduct aim to support educational goals and be in line with criminal and civil laws. Often times the courts have had the task of deciding if the codes achieve this end.

Students' Constitutional Rights and Selected Cases

Educators have to negotiate the complicated terrain of competing entities, managing difficult students yet remaining mindful of their constitutional rights, such as rights to privacy, just cause, and due process. When criminal acts in schools involve law enforcement, certain subjects, conflicts, and events may come before the courts. Courts elucidate legal issues but not once and for all: these judgments can be subsequently redefined, upheld, or found unconstitutional. Questions recur pertaining to the application of Fourteenth Amendment protections to students as these individuals are subjected to school regulations.

Issues pertaining to a student's right to privacy, to reasonable cause for search and seizure, and to technicalities about Miranda rights, all were examined in New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985), a case involving a juvenile (known only by her initials) who was suspected of smoking and then whose purse was found to contain cigarettes, rolling paper, a bag of hashish, and some file cards containing what appeared to be a list of amounts received for drug sales. The Supreme Court had to evaluate the relative rights of the student's right to privacy against the school's need to enforce an orderly environment. One of its conclusions was that education requires a disciplined environment and that means the authority to educate entails the authority to discipline.

In the 1986 case of In re William G., a California court decided that students as a group have the right to be protected by school officials from dangerous items or substances and to have enforced an environment conducive for learning. In many cases, the courts have to balance competing entities or claims to rights by opposite parties. In Bethel v. Fraser (1986) and again in Veronica v. Acton (1995), the U.S. Supreme Court decided that students' rights are secondary to students' safety. These and many other cases produce the body of court decisions which evolve social understanding of the law as it applies in ever-changing circumstances.

Columbine and Its Aftermath: Zero Tolerance

On April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, two heavily armed students killed twelve students and one teacher and seriously wounded nearly two dozen others before killing themselves. The following month in Conyers, Georgia, a 15-year-old student wounded six other students. In December, an Oklahoma middle-school student took a semiautomatic handgun to school and wounded five students. Although these incidents were covered heavily in the media, they were by no means unique occurrences. According to one study, 39 students died in school-related acts of violence during the 2004–2005 school year, including 24 deaths by shootings.

These and other murders perpetrated by children against classmates and teachers have caused a furor of reactive security measures, precaution taking, and a new commitment to stringent control. Zero tolerance, which initially referred to students carrying weapons to school, fueled provisions for suspension and expulsion and increased them. In Chicago, in the wake of commitment to zero tolerance, suspensions and expulsions jumped to an average of 90 per week, mostly Latinos and African Americans. Proponents of more stringent codes pointed to the staggering fact that every day in the United States 12 children are killed by gunshot. The fact that one day they were gathered together in their deaths at Columbine brought national consciousness to a new level. Many schools nation-wide, particularly in urban settings, instigated entry-area body and bag searches, stricter dress codes, and random drug testing. Yet critics of this stringent disciplinary action urged educators to return to a positive vision of students and search for punishments that teach rather than using those that increase the drop-out rate.

State Laws Regarding Corporal Punishment

As of 2005, 28 states outlawed corporal punishment in schools. In the remaining states, more than 300,000 students nationally are subjected to some form of corporal punishment. This number is significantly lower than in previous generations of students. For instance, an estimated 1,408,303 students received paddlings in 1980. This number fell to 613,760 in 1990 and 301,016 in 2003.

The following list indicates those states that have banned corporal punishment.

ALASKA: The state banned corporal punishment in 1989.

CALIFORNIA: The state banned corporal punishment in 1986.

CONNECTICUT: The state banned corporal punishment in 1989.

DELAWARE: The state banned corporal punishment in 2003.

HAWAII: The state banned corporal punishment in 1973.

ILLINOIS: The state banned corporal punishment in 1993.

IOWA: The state banned corporal punishment in 1989.

MAINE: The state banned corporal punishment in 1975.

MARYLAND: The state banned corporal punishment in 1993.

MASSACHUSETTS: The state banned corporal punishment in 1971.

MICHIGAN: The state banned corporal punishment in 1989.

MINNESOTA: The state banned corporal punishment in 1989.

MONTANA: The state banned corporal punishment in 1991.

NEBRASKA: The state banned corporal punishment in 1988.

NEVADA: The state banned corporal punishment in 1993.

NEW HAMPSHIRE: The state banned corporal punishment in 1983.

NEW JERSEY: The state banned corporal punishment in 1867.

NEW YORK: The state banned corporal punishment in 1985.

NORTH DAKOTA: The state banned corporal punishment in 1989.

OREGON: The state banned corporal punishment in 1989.

PENNSYLVANIA: The state banned corporal punishment in 2005.

RHODE ISLAND: The state banned corporal punishment in 1977.

SOUTH DAKOTA: The state banned corporal punishment in

VERMONT: The state banned corporal punishment in 1985.

VIRGINIA: The state banned corporal punishment in 1989.

WASHINGTON: The state banned corporal punishment in 1993.

WEST VIRGINIA: The state banned corporal punishment in 1994.

WISCONSIN: The state banned corporal punishment in 1988.

Emerging Disciplinary Theories

Many theories about discipline shift attention from external punishment and reward systems to internalization of socialization skills and moral sense. For example, in Schools Without Failure, William Glasser explains the short-term value of external punishment and the limitations of trying to control others through fear tactics. Theorists like Abraham Maslow, in Motivation and Personality, and W. Edwards Deming, in Out of the Crisis, suggest a return to humane education principles and affirmation of human goodness. Many thinkers want educational institutions to find their path into a new way of being that creates the learning moment, which sees misbehavior as an opportunity and instills faith in human nature as it pursues learning and instructs through misconduct. Marvin Marshall, in Discipline Without Stress, Punishment, or Rewards, urges people to remember that so long as they are manipulated by out-ward threats of punishment or hopes of reward, they may be neglecting intrinsic values which in the end are the ones that satisfy, induce self-control, and energize toward self-improvement. These affirmations have to be balanced with the seriousness of turn-of-the-millennium juvenile crimes and the awesome responsibility of educators to keep children safe while they engage in learning.

Additional Resources

Discipline without Stress, Punishments, or Rewards: How Teachers and Parents Promote Responsibility and Learning. Marshall, Marvin. Piper Press, 2001.

Encyclopedia of American Education. 2nd ed. Unger, Harlow. G. Facts on File, 2001.

Safety, Order, and Discipline in American Schools: Defining the Authority of Educators and Law Enforcement Personnel. Avery, Gary. Law Advisory Group, Inc., 2001.

Schools Without Failure. Glasser, William, Harper & Row, 1969.

U.S.: Statistics on Corporal Punishment by State and Race. Center for Effective Discipline, 2005. Available at

Zero Tolerance: Resisting the Drive for Punishment in our Schools. Eds. Ayers, William, Bernardine Dohrn, Rick Ayers. The New Press, 2001.


Center for Effective Discipline

155 W. Main Street, Suite 1603
Columbus, OH 43215 USA
Phone: (614) 221-8829

National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP)

1615 Duke St.
Alexandria, VA 22314 USA
Phone: (800) 386-2377

National Education Association (NEA)

1201 16th St., NW
Washington, DC 20036 USA
Phone: (202) 833-4000

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