It’s the year 2018, and it is still legal for teachers and principals to beat their students in North Carolina schools.

Our state is one of only a handful in the U.S. that still permit the use of corporal punishment. There are few restrictions on the practice — even disabled students are permitted to be spanked or paddled.

Numbers released this week by the state Department of Public Instruction give the latest glimpse into the practice, and provide plenty of evidence about why the state legislature should ban it.

It’s not widespread, but it’s a relic of the past that needs to end. It disproportionately affects poor and minority children, and children with autism.

This issue has been covered off and on over the years, but more as an oddity of the South than anything else. Here’s everything you need to know about corporal punishment in North Carolina.

How widespread is corporal punishment?

The state allows school districts to decide whether or not to use corporal punishment1.

Only two of them still do: Robeson County down east, and Graham County in the mountains2.

Combined, there were 75 instances of corporal punishment last school year statewide, according to numbers released Wednesday by the state Department of Public Instruction. They were administered to 72 different students.

The 75 beatings is up from 72 the year before. The overall trend is down as more school districts have dropped the practice3.

Forty-one were in Robeson County, and 34 in Graham. All numbers below come from DPI.

Robeson County is home to the Lumbee tribe, and American Indian students make up the majority of the beatings.

A small but significant number — 13 percent — of the instances of corporal punishment were on students with disabilities of some kind.

The youngest and oldest kids tend to get hit the most.

Most kids who get beaten skipped school.

Robeson County’s student handbook describes corporal punishment as a “last resort” to be used only after warning students it would be coming. They outline the following reasons students can be beaten:

  • Fighting
  • Using inappropriate or vulgar language
  • Displaying blatant disrespect for teachers and other school personnel
  • Skipping school
  • Creating an unsafe situation at school
  • Creating an unsafe situation on the school bus
  • Other actions not mentioned above that have the potential to endanger the safety and welfare of students and staff as deemed by the principal.

What are the rules?

There are only a few rules that govern how corporal punishment is to be carried out, and all categories of students are eligible to be paddled or spanked. Here’s how the law reads.

  1. It can’t be done in a classroom with other children present.
  2. Only a teacher, principal, or assistant principal can administer the punishment, and a second person in these categories must be present as a witness.
  3. No “excessive force” is allowed.

That’s basically it. Schools have to keep records on their use of corporal punishment and notify parents when it’s done. Familes are allowed to submit in writing a request that their child not be subject to corporal punishment at the beginning of the school year, but if there’s nothing on file then schools are allowed to hit the kids.

The limits have been adjudicated through the courts, kind of. The prevailing case law is a N.C. Supreme Court decision from 1837 (yes, 1837) where a schoolmaster was charged with assault after hitting a girl with a switch as punishment, leaving marks that lasted a few days.

The schoolmaster’s conviction was overturned and the court said that “moderate correction” is OK. Basically, if it doesn’t “seriously endanger life, limbs or health, or shall disfigure the child, or cause any other permanent injury,” it’s OK.

What actually happens during “corporal punishment” today?

What the teachers and principals are actually allowed to do isn’t spelled out in the law. Corporal punishment is only defined as “intentional infliction of physical pain upon the body of a student as a disciplinary measure.”

It appears that most schools are using a long wooden board to spank students, called paddling.

A video went viral a few years back of a 5-year-old getting paddled in Jasper County, Georiga. You can see it here, but it doesn’t really show much.

A Graham County high school principal described what he does as “a few licks on the behind with a long wooden paddle” in a story from WUNC.

It’s time to change the law.

I’m not going to wade in to the issue of whether parents should be allowed to spank their children. But schools? No way.

There’s plenty of evidence that corporal punishment is ineffective and leads to bad outcomes. I imagine a scenario in which it can be helpful, but do we really trust our school systems to implement it correctly?

As we discuss school safety more broadly, this doesn’t seem to fit with what we want teachers and principals doing.

Plus, high school principals paddling 11th- and 12th-grade girls seems like a situation that’s ripe for abuse.

The parents of Graham and Robeson counties may or may not be generally OK with corporal punishment. But it’s time for the state legislature to make a change.

Homepage photo of Graham County by Jeremy via Flickr (Creative Commons).

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