When U.S. Education Secretary John B. King earlier this month called for an end to corporal punishment in schools, he pointed to racial disparities as a key reason.
Those disparities had been quantified only months before by a University of Texas researcher conducting extensive studies of spanking. Elizabeth Gershoff, whose work was cited in the education secretary’s letter to officials around the country, found that not only is spanking counterproductive, but it is disproportionately used on black children and children with developmental disabilities such as autism.
The disparity identified by Gershoff and Pennsylvania State University researcher Sarah Font had built on a study published earlier this year. The earlier study concluded that spanking accomplishes none of what its proponents say it does and can often have the opposite effect. Spanking also can cause emotional problems similar to — if not to the same degree as — those caused by what is commonly considered physical abuse.
“I was very excited” about the education secretary’s letter, said Gershoff, a UT associate professor of human development and family sciences. “It’s been concerning that the Department of Education has not made any mention of spanking, to my knowledge,” until this month.
Schools in 22 states may legally use corporal punishment, according to King’s letter. They include Texas, though most districts in this state have decided to prohibit paddling or spanking. Efforts to ban the practice statewide have failed, though state Reps. Alma Allen, D-Houston, and Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, have proposed law changes that would ban corporal punishment .
“Notably, the very acts of corporal punishment that are permissible when applied to children in schools under some state laws would be prohibited as criminal assault or battery when applied to adults in the community in those very same states,” King wrote to all governors and heads of state school systems.
Gershoff’s most recent findings were based on 2013-14 data from all 36,942 public schools in 19 states that allow corporal punishment (primarily paddling, according to Gershoff’s paper, which was published by the Society for Research in Child Development).
Gershoff found that African-American children in Mississippi and Alabama are 51 percent more likely to be spanked or paddled than white students. She found a similarly increased likelihood in Southern schools for those with developmental disabilities, who often “are being punished for symptoms of their disability,” such as those who swear because of Tourette syndrome or those with autism who have trouble listening to instruction.
Boys are five times more likely to be spanked than girls, Gershoff found. Boys tend to have more behavior problems than girls, according to most research, “but this disparity (in spanking) is far greater than can be explained” by differences between how boys and girls act at school.
Children who are demographically more likely to be spanked are often aware a spanking is more likely for them, Gershoff said — fueling a sense of unfairness that can undermine the point of the discipline.
“They are singled out for punishment based on things they can’t control, like gender, race or disability,” Gershoff said. “That is inherently unfair.”
These recent findings build on an analysis that examined 50 years of data from 75 studies of more than 160,000 children. It was the most exhaustive ever done, according to Gershoff and her University of Michigan co-author, Andrew Grogan-Kaylor. Their peer-reviewed work was published earlier this year in the Journal of Family Psychology.
The results are perhaps unsurprising, as they are built on the same kinds of research that have consistently found spanking to be counterproductive at best, if not harmful. Many public health experts have called for a stop to spanking. Yet it remains a widely debated issue 30 years after Sweden became the first country to formally outlaw it. Much of Europe has followed, but countries such as New Zealand and the United States have not, partly because of a perception that a ban would interfere with parental rights.
At the school level, the issue can be muddled. As the American-Statesman reported in 2011, rural communities continue to embrace corporal punishment as a symbol of traditional values. When Donald Madden, a high school principal in the tiny East Texas town of Cumby, was embroiled in a controversy over a paddling he gave a student in 2008, the boy’s own father encouraged the punishment, as other parents often did. The duration of the bruises was the vague criterion used in that case to distinguish between legitimate punishment and abuse.