In Greenwood, Miss., this year's student/parent handbook shows a globe being hoisted by several young students. “Maximizing student potential,” the Greenwood Public School District declares on its cover. On page 3, the handbook tells students to be honest, respect authority and “avoid violence,” because “there are other ways to resolve conflicts.”
Then, on page 19, it lays out the circumstances under which school administrators can hit students.
“Corporal punishment for use in this district,” it says, “is defined as punishing or correcting a student by striking the student on the buttocks with a paddle.”
Such punishment, it goes on, must be carried out by the principal or assistant principal and “shall not exceed five swats with a paddle.” The punishment does not constitute “assault, simple assault, aggravated assault, battery, negligence or child abuse.”
Greenwood’s policy is not uncommon — at least not in the Deep South. Though a majority of U.S. states banned the spanking or paddling of students over the last few decades, public schools in some Southern states still depend on the practice — creating one more stress point for students already more likely to confront ill-qualified teachers, crumbling infrastructure and chaotic classrooms.
“Some people would cry,” said Laquerius Leflore, 18, who graduated last year from Ruleville Central High School in Ruleville Miss., and says he was paddled at school five times as a teen. “It would be like somebody really got tortured, sometimes. They tried to make it hurt. That was the whole point of it."
Administrators at the Sunflower County and Greenwood school districts did not respond to e-mails and phone calls seeking comment.
There are 19 states that still permit corporal punishment: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming. But according to U.S. Department of Education data, nearly 60 percent of the students paddled nationwide come from just four neighboring states — Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Texas.
The first three of those states also happen to have among the largest African American populations. Blacks constitute about 16 percent of public school students in the United States but 35 percent of those who receive corporal punishment.
That leaves a situation at majority-black districts in the Deep South where physical punishment is a relative routine part of the public school experience.
Most districts require that principals, rather than teachers, carry out the discipline. Some schools go so far as to specify the dimensions of the paddle, according to a 2008 report on corporal punishment published by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union. (Roughly 1½ to 4 feet is typical.) Typically, students are ordered into a passive position: butt sticking out, hands on the desk or wall. Sometimes students get bruised, the same report said.
According to a 2014 article by the Hechinger Report, punishment at one Mississippi district starts at day care and Head Start, where teachers use only rulers and pencils but caution, “Just wait until you get to big school.”
The article continues:
At “big school,” the wooden paddle is larger — the employee handbook calls for it to be up to thirty inches long, half an inch thick, and from two to three inches wide — and the teachers sometimes admonish errant students to “talk to the wood or go to the ‘hood” (slang for choosing between the paddle and an out-of-school suspension).
Particularly in some rural districts, the hitting of students is a point of only minor contention. One district superintendent in the Mississippi Delta, for instance, said parents have to sign consent forms before their kids can be paddled; about 80 percent give the green light.
Still, some education experts say the practice compounds the hazards of growing up in a region where test scores and job opportunities lag behind.
The National Education Association says such discipline is “more than ineffective — it is harmful.” Children who are physically punished “are more inclined to engage in aggressive conduct toward their siblings, parents, teachers, and schoolmates,” according to the Human Rights Watch and ACLU report.
Even in Mississippi, the number of beatings has fallen over the last decade, and some schools say they are reconsidering the practice, particularly given the prospect of lawsuits.
“Everybody now wants to say, ‘I’ll go get an attorney,’” said Darron Edwards, the superintendent at West Tallahatchie School District in Webb, Miss. “How many times can the school district afford to pay for legal fees?”
Edwards, who was the principal at Ruleville Central until 2013, used to use the paddle himself, though he says he tried to bring it out sparingly.
“I just feel like the threat of doing it was just as effective as doing it,” Edwards said.
Edwards added that the policy was in place long before he got there, and those who questioned it tended to be newcomers, like Teach for America staffers.
“They were definitely surprised,” Edwards said. “But of course, they’re surprised with a lot of things that exist in the state of Mississippi when it comes to education.”