School of Hard Knocks: Violent Discipline and Marginalized Youth

By Michelle Chen Aug 11, 2009

Punishment is generally supposed to correct bad behavior. So it’s curious, then, that so many kids subjected to the harshest forms of discipline are dealing with problems they have no control over. And often, children targeted for violent punishment are burdened by another disadvantage: being of a certain color. A new study by Human Rights Watch reveals that students with disabilities are disproportionately likely to be subject to corporal punishment. Yes, public schools seem to have a penchant for beating kids with autism, developmental disorders and other behavioral issues, apparently due to a toxic mix of insensitivity, incompetence, and desire to demonstrate power. Traditional "paddling" is common, but other tactics include dragging kids, slamming them against walls, and ramming their faces into the floor to "restrain" them. Somehow, treatment that wouldn’t be acceptable in a child’s home becomes legitimate in the classroom, where teachers can crack down on harmful behavior by meting out more harm. Fighting with classmates, or simply acting up in class, could trigger a beating, according to the study. Sometimes students are “punished for behavior that stems from their disability itself." (That is, the issues that make school difficult for these children become a reason to beat them, too.) Though the study does not parse the racial dimension of this degradation, federal data on corporal punishment reveal two patterns: Black kids are disproportionately labeled as developmentally delayed or emotionally disturbed, and they are disproportionately punished with violence. In a 2008 study, Human Rights Watch reported that “African Americans constitute 17.1 percent of the nationwide student population, but 35.6 percent of those paddled," and similar disparities were seen among American Indian youth as well. The practice follows a familiar geography: Educators in Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia are the most fond of beating children. One teacher in rural Mississippi observed that educators see a practical reason to target children of color:

Students that are dark-skinned, it takes more to let their skin be bruised. Even with all black students, there is an imbalance: darker-skinned students get worse punishment.

Human Rights Watch also found that in seeking redress, parents were often powerless to prevent "a grossly disproportionate and fundamentally demeaning response to the child’s condition." This kind of disempowerment of parents as participants in their children’s education is also reflected in tensions between poor communities of color and school authorities. While many schools don’t beat kids outright, other trends fall on the same spectrum of structural violence. “Zero tolerance” policies and heavy police presence at schools feed into what civil rights groups call the School to Prison Pipeline. Recent investigations by the New York Civil Liberties Union have revealed that the criminalization of students and militarization of schools disproportionately affect youth of color, potentially setting them on a path to future incarceration. Violent punishment corrodes the very qualities that schools are supposed to foster: it destroys self-confidence and encourages children to repeat violent behavior against others. And violent discipline pushes children in marginalized communities to see education not as an escape from hardship and oppression, but an institutional embodiment of it. The public discussion of academic "underachievement" typically revolves around boosting graduation rates and pushing students to work harder—framing educational gaps as a failure to promote individual achievement. But what if the primary lesson many students are learning is that they are never safe from humiliating violence? For these kids, staying in school doesn’t help; it just hurts.