Studio portrait of Sid Salter. (photo by Beth Wynn / © Mississippi State University)

By: Sid Salter

State Rep. Carl Mickens of Brooksville is from the northern part of Noxubee County. A former Noxubee County circuit clerk and justice court judge, Mickens is a second-term Democratic lawmaker who is apparently quite popular with his home county’s voters.

Rep. Mickens introduced House Bill 12 during the 2020 regular legislative session, a bill intended to ban corporal punishment or “paddling” in Mississippi public and charter schools and “provide that any (school) employee who violates the corporal punishment prohibition shall be held liable for civil damages suffered by a student as a result of the administration of corporal punishment.”

House Bill 12 is co-sponsored by State Rep. Oscar Denton of Vicksburg and State Rep. Daryl Porter Jr., of Summit, both Democrats.

Corporal punishment is one of those issues that rarely engender ambivalence. People either vigorously support or passionately oppose it. There’s little middle ground.

There are 19 states, including Mississippi, where corporal punishment remains legal: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming. Basically, the South and the lower Midwest allow it. The rest of the country has outlawed it.

The U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the practice in 1977 in the case Ingraham v. Wright. In that case, a 14-year-old boy sent to the principal’s office for failure to obey a teacher. Once there, the boy was ordered to bend over a table and accept a paddling.

The boy told the principal he wasn’t guilty of the teacher’s accusation and refused to submit. At that point, two assistant principals forced the student to submit to the paddling by holding him down on the table. The paddling was so severe that the student suffered a hematoma.

Still, on a 5-4 vote, the nation’s highest court upheld Florida’s corporal punishment policy and ruled that the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment” did not apply to children in the public schools.

The legacy of the Ingraham case in Florida was to place the future of corporal punishment in the hands of state lawmakers.

In Mississippi, as in other states where corporal punishment is legal, individual teachers and school districts – mostly in a nod to the threat and the costs of litigation – have self-regulated the use of corporal punishment and in most cases only implement it after parents have authorized the practice for their children in writing. Some districts implemented outright bans.

State law, however, permits corporal punishment “administered in a reasonable manner, or any reasonable action to maintain control and discipline of students.” In 2019, Mississippi enacted a new law which held that teachers cannot use corporal punishment on any student who has a disability or is on a special education plan.

Call me skeptical, but I rather doubt that an outright ban of corporal punishment as proposed by Rep. Mickens has much of a chance of passage. No disrespect intended, because opposition to corporal punishment is a more than valid point of public discourse and debate, but one wonders if corporal punishment is really the greatest problem facing public education in Noxubee County right now.

In 2018, the Mississippi Commission on School Accreditation and State Board of Education declared an extreme emergency situation existed in the district and asked then-Gov. Phil Bryant  to declare a state of emergency. He did.

The decision was the result of an investigative audit conducted by the Mississippi Department of Education which found the NCSD in violation of 81 percent of the state’s accreditation standards. The state took over the failing Noxubee schools and the district remains in that status this year as well.

With teacher pay, infrastructure needs, and other issues facing legislators this session, the corporal punishment issue is almost certain to get lost in the legislative push to improve the odds for students who aren’t being paddled, but who are struggling to learn.