Image by Wesley Fryer
In this new political era, we are witnessing an increasingly punitive focus on groups of people perceived to be “un-American” or “lawless,” and these discourses negatively impact our children. In the first two weeks after the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented 867 incidents of intimidation or harassment among K-12 students, making schools less safe for all students and especially for those targeted. While recent political rhetoric may embolden particularly hateful behavior among students, difficulties with promoting and maintaining safe and respectful school cultures have long challenged educators.
Educators can particularly create and maintain positive school cultures by using discipline strategies that promote a sense of physical as well as emotional safety. However, school discipline data show that educators too frequently choose detrimental approaches. Millions of students each year are suspended, expelled, and paddled in response to their challenging behaviors despite the well-documented negative impacts of these punishments. In addition, educators do not equally apply these negative consequences to all students but rather use them disproportionately with students of color and those from low-income backgrounds, further damaging these students’ connections to school.
Given the negative impacts of punitive discipline strategies on students, we wanted to know why educators continue to use them. We were particularly interested in educators’ uses of corporal punishment since it not only has been documented to have negative impacts on students but has also fallen out of favor in a majority of states. Nineteen states, primarily in the Midwest and South, continue to allow the use of corporal punishment in schools. During the 2011-12 school year, the most recent year for which national data have been reported, educators paddled over 160,000 children, and Black students were twice as likely to be paddled as Whites.
In our recent study “Title I Middle School Administrators’ Beliefs and Choices About Using Corporal Punishment and Exclusionary Discipline,” we asked administrators in low-income middle schools how they made decisions about disciplining students when they broke school rules. We wondered what roles educators’ beliefs played in their decision-making and what outcomes they believed their decisions had on students. We sought to understand educators’ experiences with discipline more broadly and with corporal punishment specifically. We took this approach because understanding educators’ choices can help those involved in education promote healthy and safe school discipline policies and practices.
We interviewed 27 school administrators at 25 low-income middle schools in Florida, all located in rural areas and most with majority White student populations. Administrators consistently described themselves as in loco parentis, as parental figures responsible for helping students grow morally as well as intellectually through the development of personal relationships in which the administrators sometimes had to discipline misbehavior. Such discipline might be focused on instilling fear in order to deter future misbehavior or on developing trust in order to motivate children to make different decisions. Administrators did not express a conflict between these outcomes and described using whatever discipline strategies would be most effective in imparting the lesson that all actions have consequences.
Administrators consistently referred to a shared set of consequences from which they could choose, and all of them described relying upon a discipline system in which the consequences became increasingly harsh if students repeated their offenses. Out-of-school suspension was considered the harshest consequence that could be used (short of expulsion) but also the least effective, which highlights the contradictions inherent in administrators’ work: They must deter misbehavior while developing positive relationships; they must instill both fear and trust; and they must impose sanctions that they do not necessarily believe in–and that are not necessarily effective–because they do not have access to better alternatives. Negotiating these contradictions and making uncomfortable compromises sometimes resulted in feelings of demoralization and failure.
Despite the fact that more than a dozen national organizations have rejected the legitimacy of corporal punishment as a form of school discipline due to research documenting its negative impacts on children, over half of the administrators we spoke with philosophically agreed with corporal punishment and used it on their students. District discipline matrices often allowed administrators to respond to particular infractions by choosing among in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, and corporal punishment, and administrators described how corporal punishment was the only one of these three punishments that minimized the amount of academic instruction students missed. In addition, administrators described how their own parents effectively used corporal punishment on them when they were children, and they also described how their students’ parents expected them to use it. To act in loco parentis in these communities meant using corporal punishment. Interestingly, four administrators explained that they personally did not agree with paddling children, but did so because of community or school expectations.
Findings that administrators’ discipline decisions reflect community norms are particularly relevant as the new federal administration promises to promote the privatization, deregulation, and localization of schools. The flexibility educators described having when they chose consequences from discipline matrices allows for educators’ implicit and explicit biases to affect their responses even when they believe they are being objective. This study shows the importance of having federal oversight of school discipline practices particularly when the practices promoted locally contradict what the preponderance of evidence has shown to be bad for kids. On the other hand, policies that decentralize disciplinary decisions and support educators’ acting in loco parentis could promote educators’ uses of empathy in choosing more humane prevention and intervention strategies and consequences. Federal policymakers must strike a balance between federal oversight and local control by working with practitioners and other education stakeholders to select, establish, and enforce effective and equitable school discipline policies. To enact these policies effectively, educators need protection from contradictory and overwhelming demands, training in viable alternatives to existing punitive discipline responses–including access to viable job-embedded professional learning communities–and sufficient and ongoing support for implementing new and better practices.