The Long Overdue Abolishment of Corporal Punishment in North Carolina

Polis: Center for Politics
4 min readDec 5, 2023

Catherine Flanagan (PPS ‘25)

Catherine Flanagan (PPS ‘25)

As the universe expands, time passes, and the ways of the world change. I’m sure many of us are used to our elders lamenting how easy we have it now, what with our alleged increasing sensitivity and soft skin. Of course, there is a reason the status quo changes with advancements in society. As our species evolves, we become more efficient and our standards increase to match this growth. No longer is violence widely accepted in the United States — however, not all legislation reflects this value change.

What is Corporal Punishment and Where is it Administered?

Corporal punishment is defined by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child as “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light.” (2) These acts usually involve hitting children with a hand or tool as well as burning, scratching, kicking, pinching, boxing ears, and other harmful mechanisms.

Currently, nineteen states permit corporal punishment in schools, including North Carolina. (1) The vast majority of these states are geographically and culturally southern, possibly correlated with their inhabitants’ more traditional values and views about the world.

The Ethics and Consequences of Corporal Punishment

Physical punishment of children, albeit common, is unacceptable and has widespread adverse long-term consequences, both psychologically and physiologically. Studies show that using violent means to send a message damages relationships with children. If my teachers or parents ever used violence to teach me a lesson, I would resent them forever. Does short-term relief outweigh a lifetime of anger and fear?

People supposedly hit children to prevent, terminate or correct bad behavior by scaring them into submission. Yes, it may be effective immediately, but it perpetuates a cycle of violence in its message that violence is sometimes okay. Where, then, is the line drawn between acceptable and inappropriate use of physical force, and who gets to decide this line?

Abundant evidence suggests that children who encounter physical violence are at a higher risk for mental health problems and are more likely to be aggressive themselves. Hurting children does not teach them values or good behavior — it teaches them that violence sometimes may actually be the answer. (2)

Policy Regarding Corporal Punishment in Schools

It has now been over a decade since a state has banned corporal punishment. What is stopping the rest? What’s stopping North Carolina?

Our general statutes regarding corporal punishment state that “in no event shall excessive force be used in the administration of corporal punishment. Excessive force includes force that results in injury to the child that requires medical attention beyond simple first aid.” (4)

The words chosen are ambiguous and open to interpretation. Thus, punishment of violence may be evaded, and children may be harmed more excessively. A new statute must unequivocally declare corporal punishment unconstitutional and punishable by law. North Carolinian constituents must engage with local policymakers and coalesce with other activists to appoint legislators who renounce corporal punishment.

Tom Vitaglione, a Senior Fellow for Health and Safety at the advocacy group NC Child believes it is essential that we remove the vestiges of this archaic measure. (3)

“Many of us feel it’s time to get it off the books so we’re not tarnished any more with that image.” (3)

Although most North Carolina public schools explicitly prohibit corporal punishment, it is still codified in state law. The opportunity for this cruelty remains and may be abused at any time with its legality.

“[The law is] about as close as you can come to sanctioning child abuse,” said Vitaglione. (3)

Alternatives to the Cane

Countless other disciplinary measures achieve better outcomes than the use of physical violence. Teachers must learn better de-escalation responses and methods to instill problem-solving and mediation skills in children and end this cycle of harm.

Outlining some of these methods reveals how simple they are:

1. Use your words: Verbalize your feelings and teach children how to do the same. Improving the child’s ability to articulate their feelings subsequently improves their prudence and thoughtfulness as well as emotion regulation.

2. Positive reinforcement: Reinforcing good behavior produces positive long-term behavioral change as children often need tangible support to incentivize their rule adherence.

3. Discipline rationally and accordingly: There is always a proportionate response to misbehavior — this is never maltreatment. Implement timeouts or the absence of enjoyable activities instead.

How difficult is it to communicate with kindness?

1. Caron, C. (2018, December 13). In 19 states, it’s still legal to Spank Children in Public Schools. The New York Times. Retrieved April 28, 2023, fromhttps://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/13/us/corporal-punishment-school-tennessee.html

2. Gershoff, E. T., & Font, S. A. (2016). Corporal punishment in U.S. public schools: Prevalence, disparities in use, and status in state and federal policy. Social policy report. Retrieved April 28, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5766273/

3. NC teachers, principals in 2 districts still hit students. https://www.wect.com. (2018, February 10). Retrieved April 28, 2023, fromhttps://www.wect.com/story/37474507/nc-teachers-principals-in-2-districts-still-hit-students/

4. North Carolina General Assembly. (n.d.). Chapter 115C — Article 27. Retrieved April 28,2023, from https://www.ncleg.net/enactedlegislation/statutes/html/byarticle/chapter_115c/article_27.html

Catherine Flanagan is from Pleasantville, NY and an Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ‘23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.

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