Legal Problems with Corporal Punishment

By Edwin C. Darden

The question of whether a child should receive an official spanking in school carries not just legal implications, but moral, cultural, class, and geographic overtones as well.

Imagine, then, the continuing difficulty that confronts a court when establishing the outer limits for a child (of whatever age) to be physically punished on public school grounds as discipline for a wayward act.

Legal requirements vary by state, largely reflecting our nation’s diverse character. School district policies differ as well. In the South and Midwest, corporal punishment -- sanctioned, structured spanking of students by school administrators -- is largely embraced. As one moves closer to either the East or West Coast, state laws explicitly outlaw the practice.

But even when it is legally permissible to break out the paddle, courts must draw tricky and delicate lines about which whacks are appropriate and which are too severe, violating the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment due process protection or state laws against arbitrary actions. There also is criminal law or civil redress in the most egregious situations.

A case declined by the U.S. Supreme Court last June, coupled with an August report by two national organizations, reinvigorated the corporal punishment debate. As educators grapple with ways to keep kids on task, teach them life lessons, and maintain safe schools for all, the subject is worth exploring in greater depth as a potentially effective and stinging technique to deter bad behavior. 

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