Will Democracy Keep Black Girls Safe?: The Protecting Our Students in Schools Act
Nineteen states explicitly allow schools to use what we traditionally understand to be corporal punishment—inflicting pain on children for the sake of discipline and humiliation. That’s probably an understatement as some states use varying definitions of permissible force in schools or don’t address corporal punishment in their laws at all. Reports show that educators commonly use corporal punishment for minor, often arbitrary infractions, such as walking on the wrong side of the hallway or sitting in an unassigned seat. Not only is physical abuse as a form of discipline morally wrong, but it also trends similarly to other discipline practices in this country, where the most marginalized students, such as Black students and students with disabilities, both statistically and physically bear the brunt of such punishments.
In September 2020, Representatives A. Donald McEachin and Suzanne Bonamici introduced the Protecting our Students in Schools Act of 2020 (H.R. 8460) to promote positive learning environments by ending the use of corporal punishment in schools. Here’s how this bill can help make schools safer and more inclusive for Black girls:
- This bill would prohibit the use of federal funding for any school district that uses corporal punishment on students.
Why this matters: Studies show that corporal punishment is more likely to increase aggression and risk of mental health disorders in children than it is to correct for bad behavior. The overuse of corporal punishment on Black students takes a further toll on student mental health, as it forces them to confront the intergenerational trauma of racially motivated violence in the U.S. They face the direct risks of corporal punishment while grappling with dehumanization rooted in the darkest parts of our nation’s past and present. By ending federal funding to programs that use corporal punishment, Congress would be taking one step closer to affirming the humanity of Black children and prioritizing their need for care over criminalization.
- The bill creates a grant program, so schools can develop trainings and other programming focused on improving learning environments and reducing exclusionary discipline that disproportionately affects Black girls.
Why this matters: Black girls are three times more likely to receive corporal punishment than white girls, even though data shows that they are no more likely to misbehave. These practices push Black girls out of school, rather than make them feel supported in their learning environment. However, both students and teachers report feeling safer in schools that invest in resources like school counselors, training for restorative practices, and trauma-informed curricula. The grant program this bill creates would promote investment into such resources that allow students the mental, social, and emotional wellbeing to focus on their education—especially as students process the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and return to in-person learning.
- This bill gives parents and the U.S. Attorney General the right to sue and the U.S. Department of Education (ED) the right to withhold grant funds from schools that use corporal punishment.
Why this matters: When a school physically abuses a student, that student and their family will have the opportunity to seek justice in a court of law, which is a more impartial setting, outside of the school’s control. Plus, allowing the Attorney General and ED to get involved will ensure corporal punishment is rooted out on a systemic level, especially when it may be too costly for families to file their own lawsuits or where there are recurring bad actors who rely on paying off individual plaintiffs to continue their abusive practices against children. These measures would provide both parents and the federal government ways to hold schools accountable to this new law.
In her book PUSHOUT: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, Dr. Monique Morris reminds us that Black girls “want to be seen and acknowledged for who they are and what they can contribute to the learning environment.” This only happens when schools invest in resources that allow them and all students to feel cared for, not when schools double down on archaic discipline practices that pose barriers to their success. That’s why Congress must not delay in passing the Protecting Our Students in Schools Act as soon as it’s reintroduced this year.
This is the fourth part in a series highlighting actions Congress can take to make schools better, safer, and more inclusive for Black girls. Read our previous post on the Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act.