Passing the paddle: Some Missouri school districts cling to corporal punishment
Preschool students at King City School District in northwest Missouri walk quietly though a hallway on March 2. The district, which is housed in one building, opts for conversation-based management strategies (Sofi Zeman/Columbia Missourian).
Early on in his administrative career, longtime Missouri educator Chris Belcher had what he called the worst experience of his life.
“The kid screamed, and I felt awful,” he said.
He didn’t want to do it, but he had to.
It was the 1980s, and Belcher was told to paddle a student who was enrolled in the school district’s special education program. The administrator who typically oversaw discipline for that particular student was out that day, leaving Belcher to handle the punishment.
As upsetting as the situation was to both the student and Belcher, it also reaffirmed his strong belief in cognitive and nonpunitive strategies.
School corporal punishment, which gained traction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is a physical disciplinary method to correct student misbehavior. In most instances where the practice is used, students are paddled by a district superintendent or school principal.
Missouri’s Cassville R-IV School District made headlines last August when it chose to reinstate its corporal punishment policy. That move — which ignited a national conversation on swatting’s place in schools — came shortly after a state law regarding student discipline took effect. The statute, RSMo 160.261, required districts to get written parent permission to administer swats before doing so. Districts that implement corporal punishment are expected to send out permission forms at the start of the school year.
Amid the media frenzy surrounding Cassville’s decision came public debate on the practice. Although some argue corporal punishment traumatizes students and damages childhood development, others call the tactic time-tested and effective. Apparently caught in the middle are districts with policies that allow corporal punishment but instead opt for conversation-based strategies.
So at a time when alternative behavior management practices have become mainstream, why do some Missouri districts hold on to corporal punishment?
Carla London, chief equity officer of Columbia Public Schools, identified a core reason:
“People go to — good or bad — they go back to what they know, what was used on them.”
Columbia Public Schools does not use corporal punishment, but London has about 30 years of experience in monitoring childhood development. She spent most of her career in education but also worked at Texas Child Protective Services and was a medical social worker at Children’s Medical Center Dallas. She has a background in psychology.
‘Building strong character’
Although the U.S. Supreme Court solidified the constitutionality of the practice in 1977, use of corporal punishment has waned in recent decades. Today, Missouri is one of 19 remaining states that legally allow it.
At least 123 Missouri school districts used language — found in their 2022 or 2023 district policies or 2022-23 school year handbooks — that authorized corporal punishment, according to a Missourian investigation on the status of almost every public school district in the state. Several districts weren’t identified for the following reasons: They lacked detailed information on district policies, their policies weren’t updated, or they posted conflicting information on their websites.
Pamela Halstead, administrator of Callao C-8 School District in north-central Missouri, said corporal punishment is a last resort in her district. She said the last time she swatted a student was about 10 years ago, and she did it at a parent’s request.
“I know we’re probably one of a few districts that do keep corporal punishment on there,” she said in February. “We keep that as an option. Is it going to be the first option? No, not even the second.”
Although it has been years since Halstead used corporal punishment, she said the district’s school board continues to uphold longstanding policy that favors the practice. The only time corporal punishment is really discussed in the district, Halstead said, is when the board has to review its policies.
“It has always been voted to keep corporal punishment in,” she said.
The district’s policies often reflect the values of the board, Halstead said. Callao’s present board has strong feelings about discipline and follows the mindset that building strong character outweighs academics.
“Part of building strong character is discipline,” Halstead said.
The difference between discipline and abuse stems from the mindset of the person administering corporal punishment, Halstead said.
“If you discipline with a clear mind and conversation along with it, and you’re not angry, and in your heart feel that there’s merit to this corporal punishment, then it can be effective,” she said.
In Advance R-IV School District in southeast Missouri, the idea of being swatted is a stronger deterrent against misbehavior than the actual swatting, Superintendent Shannon Garner said in an August interview.
“Just the thought of it, especially in the elementary-level schools,” he said.
Corporal punishment has been allowed in the district for as long as Garner can remember. Building principals are the only people authorized to administer swats in the district.
Garner said that even before legislation required parental permission, the district always checked in with parents before administering swats. At the beginning of this school year, permission slips were sent home with each child in a stack of usual back-to-school paper work. The slip asked parents whether they consented to their child being swatted.
“We contact all parents regarding all discipline before any discipline is performed,” he said. “Then, it becomes a conversation between the parent and the building-level principal.”
Corporal punishment puts students at risk of demonstrating negative externalizing and internalizing behaviors and decreased academic performance, according to a 2022 study from the University of Amsterdam’s Research Institute of Child Development and Education.
Externalizing behavior can include bullying, verbal and physical aggression and general rule-breaking. Internalizing behavior is when a person directs a set of negative behaviors toward themselves. Internalizing presents itself in a few ways, such as mental and social withdrawal, anxiety and depression.
Belcher, who was a Columbia Public Schools superintendent and today works as an assistant teaching professor in the MU College of Education and Human Development, said the more problematic a student’s behavior is, the less corporal punishment would help shape positive behavior. He said he hasn’t seen research that proves corporal punishment is better than cognitive intervention.
Being swatted at school not only embarrasses a student, but it also alters their perception of whether that environment is safe, Belcher said. This also applies to students who don’t receive swats but are in an environment where they’re administered.
Belcher added there’s a difference between swats dealt by a caregiver and swats from a school administrator. The former is personal; the latter is institutional.
“That is a completely different psychological event for that student,” he said.
Similarly, London said that a mother spanking a child is different than a schoolteacher or principal. She added this is detrimental to relationship-building, something that is foundational in keeping students on track.
“I do think it would potentially damage that relationship forever,” London said.
Relationship building, alternative strategies
In northwest Missouri’s King City School District, Superintendent Danny Johnson sees no need to hit his students.
“I’m not of the mindset that there’s never time for a child to be spanked, but I’m not going to do it here at school,” Johnson said.
Although the district has corporal punishment listed as an option in its 2022-23 handbook, its discipline policy states that the method is strictly prohibited. Instead, Johnson and district faculty push for conversation-based resolutions.
On a Thursday in early March, a preschool student refused to file into the school building at the start of the day. It was clear to Ryan Anderson, principal of King City’s elementary school, that the student was just having a tough morning.
Rather than moving into disciplinary action, Anderson let the student sleep off the bad mood in his office.
“He’ll sleep for another 30-40 minutes, we’ll give him breakfast, and then he’ll go start his day,” Johnson said while Anderson was with the student. “He’s not disrupting his peers, he’s not disrupting his teacher. So, those kids are learning, he’s getting what he needs, and then once he’s rested a bit better, we’ll get him on his way and get his day started.”
With a population of roughly 800, King City is relatively small. The entire district is housed in one school building, and high school graduating classes typically consist of about 25 students.
Johnson said the closeness of the community helps build relationships with students and their families. Staying in touch with parents when their children are doing well in school makes difficult phone calls home a bit more manageable.
Relationship-building is also essential among students, Johnson said. On Fridays, high school students walk down to the elementary wing of the building to teach younger students various character-building and healthy communication strategies that had been taught to them. This is the first year of that program.
“We’ll tweak it and make some adjustments for year two, but that has been a pretty successful avenue for building relationships with the kids,” Johnson said.
For one King City teacher, physical discipline has a completely different meaning. Anita Gilbert said she doesn’t need to discipline her students often, but when she does, she’ll either talk to them or have them do exercises, like burpees.
“And backward bear crawls,” piped up one student in her physical science class.
Nichole Staley, when asked what she does when her students are acting up, turned the question to her sophomore math class.
“She makes us clean!” called out a handful of students. Staley explained that misbehaving students sweep the classroom and hallways and clean the room’s whiteboards, desks and tables. She has a corner with brooms and cleaning supplies at the ready.
London said Columbia Public Schools strives to teach students strategies to healthily navigate conflict, compromise and self efficacy. The district this school year kicked off its five-year behavior education plan, spearheaded by London. The plan aims to maintain consistency in the behavior management methods districtwide, as well as level the playing field for students of color, who London said are disproportionately disciplined.
A multigenerational cycle
“That’s how I was raised.”
It’s a chief argument among supporters of corporal punishment. Often, people who were swatted as children believe that it taught them to respect their elders and that passing the paddle on to the next generation will do the same.
“These people on school boards who support corporal punishment probably had some strong discipline corporal punishment as a child,” Halstead said. “And they grew up to be these well-rounded people who could hold a position on the school board, and they don’t see what the big deal is.”
Halstead was raised in a home that used corporal punishment, and she said it taught her to respect her parents. She spanked her children when they were young.
Belcher said the need to continue the cycle stems from public schools being reflective of community values.
“That’s what they grew up with, that’s what they did in the home,” Belcher said, adding that this concept isn’t exclusive to rural districts.
London said the cycle stems from two factors: not being equipped with different resolutions and a need to regain control.
She said corporal punishment comes from people not having alternatives to deal with their children at home when all they know is physical discipline. She tries to give parents different behavior management tools besides what they already know.
And, London said, people who grew up in abusive environments sometimes use physical discipline on their own children as a means to regain control over what happened to them.
“I think it’s a mindset, I think it’s a trauma, and we go back to what we know.”
Brooke Muckerman, Megan Sundberg and Caroline McCone contributed to the reporting of this story.
This story originally appeared in the Columbia Missourian. It can be republished in print or online.