The use of physical force as a means of discipline -- such as slapping, spanking, or paddling -- is called corporal punishment. It was once a very common form of discipline in most schools and households, although it has fallen out of favor with a majority of parents and educators. There's a fine line between corporal punishment and child abuse, based primarily on context and restraint. In states that allow corporal punishment, physical force must only be used for valid disciplinary purposes and must not cause serious injury or intense fear. Serious injury would include things like bleeding, bruising, or broken bones.
See FindLaw's School Discipline section for additional articles.
The Federal Roots of State Corporal Punishment Laws
Not all states have statutes that address the legality of corporal punishment in public schools. In fact, most didn't have corporal punishment laws until a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirmed the rights of schools to use this form of discipline. In Ingraham v. Wright , plaintiffs argued that the use of corporal punishment violated the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment. The justices disagreed, stating that the clause specifically refers to those convicted of a crime.
Justice Lewis Powell, delivering the opinion of the Court, wrote: "We conclude that when public school teachers or administrators impose disciplinary corporal punishment, the Eighth Amendment is inapplicable."
State Corporal Punishment Laws at a Glance
Domestic corporal punishment remains legal in most states, although more than 40 countries (including much of Western Europe) have outlawed corporal punishment in the home. Delaware became the first U.S. state to outlaw domestic corporal punishment. State laws with regard to corporal punishment in public schools are more of a mixed bag, ranging from outright bans to guidelines encouraging the use of paddling for certain behaviors. The first state to ban corporal punishment in schools was New Jersey, in 1867.
A total of 19 states allow public school teachers and administrators to use corporal punishment (as of April 2015). Laws permitting corporal punishment typically state the type of punishment allowed; circumstances in which it is considered appropriate; and liability waivers for authorized adults who physically punish students. But many of these states defer to individual school districts to draft their own discipline guidelines.
Corporal Punishment in Public Schools: Examples of State Laws
Most states that permit corporal punishment in schools also allow parents to opt out if they disapprove, but not all of them. In fact, the Ingraham decision states that schools may use reasonable corporal punishment even if parents object. Here are a few state law examples:
As you can see, the legal landscape varies depending on where you live. Still have questions or concerns? Contact an education law attorney in your state about the legality of corporal punishment in your child's school.
Contact a qualified attorney.