Josh Gwartney, principal of the early childhood center at Chouteau-Mazie Public Schools, displays the paddle available to be used on students. Credit: Clifton Adcock / Oklahoma Watch

All schools should stop paddling students as a form of discipline because it’s “harmful, ineffective, and often disproportionately applied to students of color and students with disabilities,” U.S. Secretary of Education John King wrote in a letter Tuesday to all state governors and schools chiefs.

Oklahoma is one of 22 states that allow corporal punishment in schools, and one of the states where its use is the most prevalent. Several districts here paddled more than 12 percent of students in the 2013-14 school year according to a new map created by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

More than 110,000 students nationwide were subjected to corporal punishment in the 2013-14 school year, according to the department’s data, which is self-reported by school districts and collected biannually. More than one-third of those students, or about 40,000, were black, even though black students comprise 16 percent of public school students.

Boys represented 80 percent of the students who experienced corporal punishment. Students with disabilities, too, were disproportionately subjected to corporal punishment, the data shows.

Corporal punishment is protected by state statute, which states that the Board of Education does not have the authority to disallow corporal punishment, except for special education students. Policies concerning punishment are left to local school boards.

“Most school leaders agree that there are alternative disciplinary methods that are more effective,” State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said via a department spokeswoman.

While most U.S. schools have abandoned the practice, schools that continue to use corporal punishment tend to be concentrated in the Deep South, federal data shows. In Oklahoma, the two largest school districts – Oklahoma City and Tulsa – prohibit corporal punishment. An Oklahoma Watch series on disparities in discipline reported that schools that allow corporal punishment generally are in smaller, non-urban districts. In 2011-12, 587 of 1,774 schools used physical discipline.

Research has shown physical punishment of students can have the opposite of its intended effect. A 2016 study by researchers at the University of Michigan, which King cites in his letter, found that the more children were spanked, the more likely they were to exhibit the behaviors the punishment was meant to curb: defiance, aggression and low academic achievement. Children struck with paddles or switches showed worse effects.

King raised other concerns based on research on corporal punishment. Children who experience physical punishment are more likely to develop mental health issues, a study in the American Academy of Pediatrics found, and it has been associated with antisocial behavior. It also can negatively impact academic outcomes, including cognitive functioning, verbal capacity, brain development and problem solving, studies show.

“It is difficult for a school to be considered safe or supportive if its students are fearful of being physically punished by the adults who are charged with supporting their learning and their future,” King wrote. “This practice has no place in the public schools of a modern nation that plays such an essential role in the advancement and protection of civil and human rights.”

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