In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, did not apply to students, meaning that teachers could use physical punishment without parental permission. There is no federal ban on corporal punishment, leaving it up to the states to decide whether to continue these archaic practices as a means of discipline while educating children.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report, The Striking Outlier, while corporal punishment is illegal in 31 of the 50 states, it remains deeply entrenched in the South. Ten Southern states – Louisiana included – account for more than three-quarters of all corporal punishment in public schools. Although Louisiana has allowed its local parishes to determine whether to implement corporal punishment, and only 29 out of the 69 public school districts allow it, Louisiana continues to rank in the top 10 of these 19 states that strike students in school.
Yet, the state bans corporal punishment in nearly all other child-serving settings, including foster care and juvenile detention. When Louisiana’s regular legislative session begins in March 2022, the SPLC Action Fund will support legislation to end this practice that also has no place in our schools.
State statute defines corporal punishment as “using physical force to discipline a student, with or without an object. Corporal punishment includes hitting, paddling, striking, spanking, slapping or any other physical force that causes pain or physical discomfort.” Before the 2017 Louisiana legislative session, teachers were allowed to physically punish all students, including those with disabilities. However, during that session, then-Rep. Franklin Foil, a Republican, was successful in passing bipartisan legislation that banned corporal punishment for students with disabilities.
While the practice of corporal punishment has steadily declined over time, Louisiana public school students received corporal punishment almost 1,000 times during the 2019-20 school year, according to a recent count. Further, reports have shown that corporal punishment is often administered disproportionately to students of color. In 2018, 1,301 Louisiana public school students experienced corporal punishment in school, according to a report by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. Nearly twice as many Black students experienced corporal punishment as white students in Louisiana’s public schools.
During the 2021 Louisiana regular legislative session, Republican Rep. Stephanie Hilferty introduced HB 324, which would have prohibited the practice of corporal punishment in all Louisiana public schools. Unfortunately, the bill failed to pass by a vote of 48-49, falling short by a mere five votes, as 53 votes were needed for final passage in the House.
Republican Rep. Danny McCormick feared that banning corporal punishment in elementary and secondary public schools would be a “dangerous” step toward the state dictating to parents how they may discipline their children. In the hearing on the bill, Republican Rep. Michael Firment read aloud messages from his wife, a teacher, and her assistant principal. The message from his wife read, “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.”
“‘Many times, [spanking] works on the young children when nothing else does,’” Firment said, reading from the assistant principal. “‘They may not understand suspension or detention, but they understand paddling.’”
Corporal punishment, however, not only physically harms students, but it can damage student-educator trust and harm students’ opportunities to learn. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, disciplining a child with corporal punishment “can bring on a vicious cycle of escalating poor behavior and more severe punishment.”
The Louisiana Constitution requires the state to provide humane learning environments for students. It is long overdue for Louisiana to prohibit corporal punishment for all its public schools and exclude all children from this cruel and harmful practice.
Terry Landry is policy director for the SPLC Action Fund in Louisiana.