Punishment in Schools Is Not Prohibited by the Eighth Amendment

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Punishment in Schools Is Not Prohibited by the Eighth Amendment

Patricia H. Hinchey

The Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that Eighth Amendment privileges do not extend into the realm of schools. Thus, schools have the right to inflict corporal punishments, such as paddlings, if they so choose. In the following selection Patricia H. Hinchey explores individual cases of harsh corporal punishment and discusses the fact that the United States is one of only a handful of nations that still exercises corporal punishment on a regular basis. Patricia H. Hinchey is an associate professor of education at Penn State University.


Patricia H. Hinchey, "Corporal Punishment Legalities, Realities, and Implications," Clearing House, vol. 76, January/February 2003, pp. 127–31. Copyright © 2003 by the Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation. Reproduced with permission of the Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation, published by Heldref Publications, 1319 18th St. NW, Washington, DC, 20036-1802.

Primary Source Text

For some time now, I have been talking to practitioners about corporal punishment in schools, especially middle and high schools. Practitioner responses to my questions about the legal status of paddling and other physical discipline in their states have fallen into two categories: surprise that I would ask about the subject as if practices such as paddling still existed anywhere, and surprise that I would ask about the topic as if paddling weren't common in every school in the country. Most teachers appear to assume that the status of corporal punishment in their own school or state is a national standard—a perception that is far from contemporary reality. The following quiz will help readers determine the reliability of their own perceptions relating to this topic:

Corporal Punishment: True or False?

  • The issue of corporal punishment has reached the United States Supreme Court, which has upheld the practice as constitutional.
  • Military personnel and criminals have the right to due process before corporal punishment can be imposed; as a matter of federal law, schoolchildren, on the contrary, do not.
  • Early in his term in office, President George W. Bush promoted legislation that would protect educators who had beaten children from lawsuits. Both teachers' unions, the NEA (National Education Association) and the NIT (National Federation of Teachers), opposed this legislation, intended to protect their members.
  • Researchers have demonstrated that corporal punishment can constitute a form of sexual abuse.

However unlikely it may seem to many readers, the answer in every case is "true."

The Eighth Amendment Protects Criminals, Not Schoolchildren

The Supreme Court case that now provides the foundation for corporal punishment policies is Ingraham v. Wright (1977). Two students, James Ingraham and Roosevelt Andrews, suffered severe paddlings in their Florida junior high school that left Ingraham needing medical attention for severe pain and bruising and Andrews unable in one instance to use his arm for a week. Their suit argued that the paddlings were unconstitutional, in violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment and also of the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of due process. The Court, however, rejected both arguments. Because corporal punishment has long been common among parents and school officials alike, the Court found, it could not be classified as "cruel and unusual." Moreover, the Court found that the Eighth Amendment is intended to protect criminals, not schoolchildren, and that children who suffered severe punishment could gain redress by prosecuting officials on such charges as assault and battery, a recourse thought to be sufficient protection for children.

Although many parents and students have indeed sought legal redress for severe beatings, they rarely win in court—making it especially difficult to understand why President Bush has supported a legislative effort to prohibit lawsuits against educators. Courts have found in favor of schools and teachers even when the punishment they imposed included paddling a nine-year-old seven times within half an hour; sticking a straight pin into a student's arm; confining children in closets and other small, dark spaces; slamming them into walls; and stuffing and/or taping children's mouths. Parents have also been dismayed to lose cases filed after a child was paddled without parental permission. Unless a school chooses to abide by parental wishes, parents in states where corporal punishment is legal can protect their children from beatings only by removing them from schools that employ paddling.

Sometimes the offenses against children are so egregious that it seems unbelievable that courts would find for schools and against the family, but it routinely happens. For example, one seventeen-year-old female, who was both an honor student and a senior with no prior record of misbehavior, skipped school. This young adult was forced to bend over a desk and submit to several blows inflicted by an adult male coach whom she had trusted until the incident. For the girl, consequences included not only the physical pain of the beating, but also menstrual hemorrhaging and long lasting emotional trauma. Despite arguments that the case involved not only physical but also sexual abuse, the school won the case. In fact, over and over again corporal punishment has been linked to sexual abuse, although many state legislators who could outlaw the practice apparently remain unmoved by such arguments.

Nor is any special consideration offered to students with disabilities, for whom courts have upheld paddling, isolation, and mouth taping as punishments. In one case, a disabled student was forced to do exercise so rigorous that it led to his death. Rather than finding such incidents a cause for restraining corporal punishment, legislators have blithely moved forward toward solidifying educators' legal right to impose physical punishment on students with disabilities. In June 2001, a bill enabling discipline of the disabled was introduced by U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama and passed the United States Senate.

As the following examples illustrate, courts rarely punish abusive educators in states that allow corporal punishment.

America Refuses to Restrict Corporal Punishment

It is perhaps telling that the United States is one of two countries worldwide that have not yet ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in November 1989. The other is Somalia. The document calls for multiple protections of the human rights of children, including the right to be protected from violence.

As other countries of the world move toward greater and greater protection of their children, with Northern Ireland and Scotland strengthening laws against corporal punishment in 2001, the United States retains its dubious distinction of being one of very few developed countries whose national policy allows corporal punishment in schools. Over one hundred organizations joined forces to call this fact to national attention in a widely publicized letter to the president of the United States: "Throughout the developed, industrial world, and in many developing nations, the use of corporal punishment against schoolchildren is forbidden. No European country permits the practice." Organizations signing the letter included the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Congress of Parents and Teachers Association, the National Mental Health Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Association of Physicians for Human Rights, the National Association of School Psychologists, the American School Counselor Association, and the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse.

However, the organizations' plea that the president "instruct the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education to take expeditious and forceful action to deny federal assistance to any school, school district, or other educational entity that authorizes the use of corporal punishment" has fallen on deaf ears. The effort has also been undermined both by President Bush's support for legislation protecting those who beat children and by Senator Sessions's efforts to make sure that all children are equally subject to such beatings. A [2001] Houston Chronicle story reported the case of several Canadian parents who moved to Ohio and Indiana to escape the Canadian law prohibiting the use of such objects as paddles, sticks, and belts to inflict punishment on children. In Ohio and Indiana, parents (and others) are free to strike children with such instruments.

For those concerned about the physical safety and mental health of children, the good news is that legislators in twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia have heeded the research and advice of pediatricians, parents, educators, and others and have passed state laws prohibiting corporal punishment in schools. However, that leaves children in nearly half of all states still subject to the abuses of corporal punishment with little or no practical means of prevention or redress. . . .

Although defenders of corporal punishment argue that few incidents are excessive, a review of news reports indicates otherwise—and that the extreme cases are sufficiently horrifying to justify exclusion of corporal punishment, whatever the rate of incidence.

The Realities of Corporal Punishment in the United States

All of the following incidents were reported in newspapers during 2001. In the context of cases with results as severe as death, some cases seem almost trivial by comparison. Still, it is likely that most parents would be greatly upset by the actions of a California teacher who, despite a ban on corporal punishment, taped a first-grader's mouth shut and threatened to tie her up; and of an Arizona teacher who tried to force a sixth-grader to chew gum already chewed by others and saved in a jar for the purposes of this punishment. Such bodily indignities, however, are the least of what a child may suffer in school, as other reported incidents nationwide reveal.

An Oklahoma Christian school teacher struck a 12-year-old with a 3-foot long dowel because he was passing notes in class and inflicted bruises that hospital doctors characterized as "severe." A parent in Louisiana was unsuccessful in filing a criminal action against an assistant principal who broke a paddle on a 13-year-old. A parochial school director in Florida was arrested after using a wooden board to paddle an 8-year-old, leaving a mark some 4 inches wide and 6 inches long and welts as high as a quarter of an inch. In another Florida incident, a dean at an elementary school was found guilty of misdemeanor battery for excessively beating an 8-year-old; he was required to take an anger-management course and subsequently returned to his role as school leader—although after this incident, the school did ban corporal punishment. In Michigan, another state where corporal punishment is legally restricted, a 15-year-old freshman football player did not return to school for weeks after he received 10 blows with a paddle that eventually cracked. Some six or seven other players were also hit, one approximately 12 or 13 times. In Tennessee, a school employee faced criminal charges after hitting a 15-year-old in the arm with a baseball bat.

A national antispanking group called for a civil rights audit of students in Mobile, Alabama, because black children in recent years have received 65 to 70 percent of all paddlings there, although they make up slightly less than half of all students. Statistics also indicated that on the whole, for the 1998–99 school year, 73 percent of paddlings administered statewide in Alabama were to the black students who make up only 41 percent of its total school population.

If all reports related to religious schools and alternative "boot-camp" type schools were included, this list would be much longer.