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The Corporal Punishment Question

What is Corporal Punishment?

Corporal punishment, also referred to as physical punishment, is defined as any physical force used to cause discomfort or pain in response to an unwanted behavior. This form of discipline was widely accepted and used in schools across the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. In more recent decades, however, the topic has been subject to debate over whether it should even be legal. Laws regarding corporal punishment are determined by state governments, and therefore vary from state to state.

The Corporal Punishment Debate

Despite the lack of a complete ban on corporal punishment, public opinion shows that a majority of the American public (over 70%) opposes the use of corporal punishment in schools. Furthermore, the belief that it is an effective method of discipline has also decreased. While more research would be beneficial, there are several studies that show the negative effects of physical punishment on child development. This can present similarly to negative effects of child maltreatment and abuse.

For example, one such study in 2013 showed those who were physically disciplined, but without other maltreatment, were more likely to exhibit antisocial behaviors. A similar finding was found for those who did experience maltreatment. Experiencing both physical discipline and maltreatment presented the highest risk of antisocial behavior. Researchers have also found that those who experienced physical discipline were more likely to develop conduct disorders, among other conditions. These findings have led some to compare corporal punishment to child abuse. Those who oppose it note the negative effects on long-term development.

The corporal punishment question

Contradictions in Legislation with Child Abuse

Some legislators have argued that since corporal punishment is not widely used, outlawing it is not a cause for concern. Others argue that since it is widely opposed, it should simply be outlawed. According to Civil Rights Data Collection, 69, 492 students reported receiving corporal punishment during the 2017-2018 school year. Regardless of the arguments, it is worth noting the contradictions in legislation when comparing the definitions of corporal punishment and child abuse. Corporal punishment is defined as a disciplinary method in which an adult inflicts physical pain on a child in response to an unwanted behavior. Physical Child abuse is defined as using physical force on a child that inflicts pain or injury. When simply looking at definitions, this illustrates a direct contradiction.

The Legality of Corporal Punishment in the US

Federal Government Stance

In 1977, the Supreme Court case, Ingraham v. Wright, specifically addressed the legality of corporal punishment. The court upheld Florida’s policy regarding corporal punishment in public schools, stating the lack of prohibition of corporal punishments unless they are “degrading or unduly severe.” In 1970, James Ingraham was taken to the principal’s office for failing to leave the stage in the auditorium, and he denied this accusation. After refusing to bend over, the student was forcibly held down and spanked with a wooden paddle over 20 times. This resulted in a hematoma that required medical attention. The student’s parents sued the school, claiming it was “cruel and unusual punishment.” However, the court claimed that this clause in the Eighth Amendment does not apply to corporal punishment in schools. Therefore, the court denied substantive due process claims for the plaintiff. 

Current State Status

After that Supreme Court case, it was established that laws regarding the legality of corporal punishment were left to state legislators. Since this case, many states have outlawed corporal punishment in public schools. However, it is still lawful in 19 states. In addition, the only states where corporal punishment is unlawful in private schools include Iowa, New Jersey, and Maryland. Several states have strong immunity laws protecting teachers and administrators as well. 

In states where corporal punishment is still legal, the rules can vary depending on the specific school district. Some districts allow parents to either “opt-in” or “opt-out” of allowing teachers to utilize corporal punishment with their children. Within some states, such as Florida, there are districts where corporal punishment is not only legal, but parents do not have the option to decline teachers’ permission to use it, regardless of whether or not they are opposed to it. 

Since the 1977 Supreme Court case set a precedent for state legislation and the offense took place in Florida, this state’s statute is utilized as an example, for comparison purposes only. As outlined in the 2018 Florida statutes, within Title XLVI, ChapterThe corporal punishment question 827, Section 03, Florida law states that “child abuse” means: “Intentional infliction of physical or mental injury upon a child…” Because the verbiage is relatively vague, this definition could imply that without immunity laws in place for teachers and administrators, corporal punishment could technically be considered child abuse. Arguments for or against corporal punishment aside, the clarification of the difference between that and child abuse in state legislation could reasonably be explored and expanded upon. 

How the US Compares to Global Laws

The United States is one of three developed countries that have not completely outlawed corporal punishment in schools. In Australia, Queensland is the only jurisdiction where corporal punishment is still legal, and Singapore is the third country. Corporal punishment is banned in 128 countries including Canada, the European Union, and New Zealand. 

Additional Resources

For more research information on corporal punishment, click here.

To find more information on corporal punishment prevalence, both in the US and globally, click here.

For additional resources on child maltreatment and abuse, please visit our website. We have several educational resources for professionals across many fields. We provide the most up-to-date research on relevant topics. Stay tuned for more information on our upcoming title, Mental Health Issues of Child Maltreatment: Contemporary Strategies, where we specifically address school environments and how they can affect child development.


This blog was written by STM Learning’s editorial staff for educational purposes only. It is not intended to give specific medical or legal advice. For expert information on the discussed subjects, please refer to STM Learning’s publications.

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