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How School Disciplinary Policies Have Changed Over the Years
You may have seen old movies or drawings that depict a child sitting in the corner of a classroom wearing a pointed hat that reads “Dunce,” or of a teacher swatting a student with a bundle of sticks.
While the pointed hat has fallen out of favor, corporal punishment is still a lawful form of public-school discipline in 19 U.S. states.1 During the 2017–2018 school year, 70,348 elementary or secondary public-school students were paddled or spanked, or received another form of physical punishment.2
How is this controversial practice—opposed by the American Academy of Pediatrics,3 the American Psychological Association,4 and other organizations—legal in some states but banned in others? The answer is part of the history of public-school discipline and how it’s evolving in the United States.
In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporal punishment in schools is constitutional and left the decision to use it as a disciplinary practice up to individual states.1 But corporal punishment has a longer history, dating back to the earliest years of public education in the United States.
In the middle of the 19th century, U.S. educators began considering other approaches. One influence was Swiss educator Philipp Emanuel von Fellenberg, who believed in positivity rather than punishment.5
As the 20th century dawned, 31 states required children 8–14 to attend school. By 1918, elementary school attendance was mandatory in all states.6 Teachers had more day-to-day supervision of children, and under the law, they could act in loco parentis, or “in place of parents.”5 That gave teachers, and later school administrators, wide discretion as to how students were disciplined.
School Discipline’s Next Evolution
“In the second half of the 20th century, healthcare professionals and educators helped to transform school discipline history: They became more informed about how student misbehavior may be connected to physiological or psychological problems, like attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity, or emotional disturbance,” according to the FindLaw article “School Discipline History.”5
Educators took inspiration from theories like Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,7 and from child development experts like pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock.5 Schools started adopting more positive interventions.
“Establishing and maintaining a positive school and classroom climate allows a school community to proactively prevent discipline issues by increasing the strength and the quality of classroom activities,” the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments says. “Implicit in this approach is the assumption that participating in well-managed classroom activities encourages self-discipline by teaching students about what is possible through cooperation and coordination with others.”8
The National Association of School Psychologists advocates effective school discipline practices that:9
- Promote a positive school climate.
- Reinforce positive and pro-social behaviors.
- Promote school safety.
- Keep students in the classroom and out of the juvenile justice system.
- Address and reduce disproportionality in exclusionary discipline practices.
The National Education Association (NEA), in its 2022–2023 Safe, Just, and Equitable Schools policy statement, calls for an end to “harsh school discipline/behavioral policies.”10
“NEA’s vision is to emphasize evidence-based behavioral practices centered in the philosophy of restorative justice over the criminalization and policing of students, and which dismantle and eliminate inequitable policies, practices, and systems that deprive many of our students of their futures and disproportionately harm Native, Asian, Black, Latin(o/a/x), Middle Eastern and North African, Pacific Islander, and multiracial students, including those who identify as LGBTQ+, have disabilities, and/or are English language learners,” the NEA policy statement reads.10
The NEA also says some schools rely too heavily on suspension and expulsion as disciplinary measures, which can seriously limit student success.10 During the 2017–2018 school year, there were 2,636,386 in-school suspensions, 2,510,919 out-of-school suspensions, and 101,958 expulsions in public elementary and secondary schools in the U.S.2
“Students who are suspended or expelled not only fall behind academically but are significantly more likely to drop out of school altogether, fail to secure a job, rely on social welfare programs, and end up in prison or face deportation,” the NEA says.10
The NEA also opposes corporal punishment, calling it “ineffective” and “harmful.”11
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