Native American, Black and disabled students are overrepresented in the number of children subjected to corporal punishment in Oklahoma’s public schools, according to a new report by the Tulsa-based nonprofit Oklahoma Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.

Oklahoma is one of 17 states that allows public school educators to hit their students. For decades, advocacy groups, state education leaders and lawmakers have attempted to ban the practice, but those efforts have always been hindered.

Child mental health experts said children who are hit by teachers, school principals and parents are more likely to develop mental health problems such as mood, anxiety and personality disorders, substance abuse, antisocial behavior and depression.

David Blatt is the director of research and strategic impact at Oklahoma Appleseed. The number of students hit by educators in Oklahoma schools each year has declined significantly in recent decades, Blatt said, but racial disparities still exist in the small rural places where it’s allowed. Similar disparities exist for students with disabilities, according to the report.

“Corporal punishment has decreased in Oklahoma, especially when you consider the more than 50,000 students who were hit at school in 1986,” Blatt said. “But we are still fifth in the country, and we still see disparities that affect Native and Black kids, and kids with disabilities.” 

As of the 2017-2018 school year, for which the latest federal data is available, 137 of 512 school districts in Oklahoma engaged in corporal punishment, per the report. Those that did were mostly small rural districts with fewer than 1,000 students and accounted for one-seventh of the state’s public school students. 

At the school site level, 199 of 1,800 schools reported that educators hit students as a disciplinary measure that year. According to the report, 3,968 students were subjected to corporal punishment.

Nearly one-fourth of those students were Native American, even though they made up just 13.6% of the student population.

Oklahoma has a legacy of abuse when it comes to educating Native American children in federally funded boarding schools. Dating back to at least the late 19th century, Native children were plucked from their families and forced to attend boarding schools, where they became assimilated into predominantly white American society. Many had their braids cut and lye poured over their bodies to cleanse them. Others were beaten when they used Indigenous names or spoke their languages. 

The data showing Black students are more frequently subjected to corporal punishment is not representative of a statewide trend, Blatt said, explaining that most Black students in the state attend urban and suburban schools that have ended the practice. 

In schools where corporal punishment still happens, however, Black students comprised 2% of the student population and 5.6% of those who were hit by educators, making them more than twice as likely to be disciplined by physical violence than students of other demographic groups.

Blatt said racial disparities in corporal punishment can be attributed to many factors, including geography, poverty, poor health outcomes and a history of stereotyping. 

“I think that for Native children, it has to do with geography,” Blatt said. “The parts of the state that continue to practice corporal punishment are those with large Native populations. They are rural, they are poor.

“In terms of Black students, there’s substantial literature on why they are over-disciplined,” he said. “It gets to perceptions and stereotypes about Black students being more prone to engaging in bad behavior and needing a stronger hand.” 

Jermaine Thibodeaux is an assistant professor and historian at Oklahoma University’s Clara Luper Department of African and African-American Studies and a former Texas public school teacher. While Thibodeaux’s primary field is the history of prisons in the American South, he said his work has led him to explore the connections between the criminalization of Black youth and the overrepresentation of Black Americans in incarceration. 

Thibodeaux pointed to three main factors contributing to the over-disciplining of Black students: the white gaze in district policymaking, a discrepancy in the racial makeup of school staff compared to the students they teach, and a culture of physical discipline in traditional Black families. 

“It’s no surprise that corporal punishment is being used the most against Black students,” he said. “In many school districts, school policies are written in a way where there is no tolerance for any kind of misbehavior. Those don’t pair well with the continued historical myth that Black children, Black people, are more criminal or socially deviant.

“Oftentimes there is a chasm between what teachers look like and what students look like,” he said. “In schools where students of color are a minority and the teacher and staff are homogenous in their race, there tends to be a perception of the absent Black parent. Many teachers take parenting into their own hands.” 

Students with disabilities made up 16.5% of the state’s students in 2017-2018 but were 21% of those subject to corporal punishment. Blatt said the trend for students with disabilities is similar to that of Native students. Corporal punishment is occurring in parts of the state where students with disabilities are a greater percentage of school student populations when compared to their share of the state student population. 

Teachers who hit students with disabilities often do so because they tend to meet challenging behavior with harsh punishments to get immediate results, according to the report.

Scott Singleton, a school psychologist and psychology professor at the University of Central Oklahoma, said that practice is not instructive to students. 

“Inflicting physical pain will result in a very short-term reduction of problem behavior and compliance in a child, but it only lasts a few minutes or hours,” Singleton said. “They just learn the environment where that happens is not where they want to be, so they start to avoid the classroom, then school, and then other things they don’t like.” 

Efforts to Ban Hitting Schoolchildren 

There is no federal law or regulation related to corporal punishment. In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision led by Justice Lewis Powell, upheld the practice in Ingraham v. Wright. Only two states had bans in place then, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

Today a majority of states have bans and the practice is prohibited in 128 countries, including all of Europe.

The latest effort to ban the practice at the federal level was this year. The Protecting Our Students in Schools Act of 2023 was introduced by Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Connecticut, and Rep. Suzanne Banmici, D-Oregon, in May. The measure was referred to education and labor committees in both chambers and has so far stalled. 

In Oklahoma the debate about whether to allow corporal punishment in public schools has been ongoing since the 1980s. On one side, state education officials, urban school district leaders, Democratic lawmakers, and advocacy groups have pushed to end the practice, viewing it as unnecessary and harmful to students. Rural school leaders and their Republican representatives have sought to maintain it, arguing that physical pain is sometimes necessary to make children behave and that the decision to allow it should be left to district school boards, not the state.

In 1993, Senate Bill 558, which gave school districts the sole authority over their discipline policies, passed into law following the legislative override of a veto by then-governor David Walters. 

Recently, the Oklahoma State Department of Education prohibited corporal punishment against students with disabilities served by an Individual Education Plan, or IEP, in 2020. Still, 2021-2022 state data shows that dozens of districts continued to engage in corporal punishment against students with disabilities.

House Bill 1028, introduced this year by Rep. John Talley, R-Stillwater, aimed to align state law with the education department’s policy. After a controversial House floor debate during which Rep. Jim Olsen, R-Roland, used Bible verses to justify hitting children, the bill passed in the House and failed in the Senate. 

Rep. Jim Grego, R-Wilberton, is one of eight representatives who voted against the bill in the House. He said he plans to change his vote and help end the corporal punishment of students with disabilities if the bill is reintroduced next session, but that he still supports the practice on students who are not disabled. 

“I understand those children have special needs, and that they need to be treated in a special way,” Grego said of students with disabilities.

When it comes to everyone else, however, he said physical discipline is an effective deterrent from getting into trouble. 

“That’s the way I was raised,” he said. “I think it was necessary then, and I think it’s necessary now. It changed my life for the better, and it changed the life of my entire generation.” 

A House interim study on corporal punishment for students with disabilities led by Talley and Rep. Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, will take place at 1 p.m. Thursday, in Room 206 of the Capitol building. 

The push to end corporal punishment in public schools is based on studies revealing it doesn’t work as a long-term solution to bad behavior in children. Instead, it teaches violence as a solution to discomfort, leading to a higher propensity for mental health problems.

Singleton said the benefits of corporal punishment don’t outweigh the costs. The resulting trauma-related behaviors a person may develop often last their lifetime, he said.

As they get older, people who are punished with physical violence as children often grow up to be anxious, angry, depressed and avoidant of social environments, he said. They are also more likely to use violence towards others to achieve an end. 

Hitting a student is a better remedy for the frustration and anger a teacher may experience than it is for the poor behavior of that student, Singleton said. It becomes about making themselves feel better when faced with discomfort, he said.

“The problem with that is it becomes a cycle of reward,” he said. “‘I deliver justice, your behavior’s better, I feel better.’ In the future, those teachers are more likely to do it again.” 

The possibility of that pattern concerns the researchers at Oklahoma Appleseed when it comes to the state and federal numbers used for the report, Blatt said.

The data shows the number of students who were subject to corporal punishment, not the number of instances it occurred, and the delegation of school discipline policies to local school boards means little consistency in how districts handle the recording each time it happens and whether parents are notified.

“We know 3,968 students were hit in school during the 2017-2018 school year,” he said. “But we have no way of knowing how many times each of those students endured that punishment for their behavior.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Oct. 3, 2023 to correct David Blatt’s title and on Oct. 4 to update the time of the interim study on corporal punishment.

Lionel Ramos is a Report for America corps member who covers race and equity issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at 405-905-9953 or Follow him on Twitter at @LionelRamos_.

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