Corporal punishment in NC schools: a structural racism success story that’s not yet complete

Recent events, leaving so many stark and troubling images on our minds, have raised awareness of “structural racism” in our society. Protests have focused on policing and monuments, but it is clear that structural racism is pervasive, and comprehensive study leading to comprehensive interventions is needed.

All of this seems quite daunting, but less so if we identify particular vestiges and resolve them. For example, the North Carolina General Assembly has passed two bills providing some reforms to the criminal justice system: the First Step Act and the Second Chance Act. More is needed, but the process has begun.

Progress, however, may be painstakingly slow. A good case in point is corporal punishment in the public schools.

A decade ago, when most of our state’s local public school districts used corporal punishment, the US Office of Civil Rights issued a report indicating that in North Carolina Black students (and particularly males) received corporal punishment at twice the rate of white students. And the disproportion was worse in most of the southern states.

It was this reality, in addition to reports that corporal punishment is not effective, that led school districts to study the problem in their locale. Remarkably, by 2018 all 115 local school district prohibited corporal punishment. And that’s good news!

This made North Carolina the only state to have a state statute allowing corporal punishment while no public schools use the practice. The state House chose to affirm local decisions last year by overwhelmingly approving a bill (HB 295) that would delete the out-of-date statute. And that’s good news!

Unfortunately, the Senate has declined to give the bill a hearing. Actually, it is misleading to say “Senate,” since a canvass shows great support for the bill in that body. The obstacle is that a couple of leaders on the Senate Education Committee are still living in the past on this issue, and refuse to put the bill on the committee calendar. While their motives are unknown, one can only assume that the issue is so visceral for them that they will not let their colleagues consider the bill. And Senate protocol allows them to get away with such obstreperous behavior.

We should applaud local education leaders all across the state for protecting students from what was the racially disproportionate use of corporal punishment. The only challenge left is to remove the statutory vestige. It will take perseverance to do so on this vestige and all the others that underlie structural racism in our society.

Tom Vitaglione is a Senior Fellow for Health and Safety at the advocacy group NC Child.