Corporal punishment: Widespread but declining

Adrian Peterson
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson walks to the field before an NFL football training camp practice, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, in Mankato, Minn.
Charlie Neibergall / AP

Allegations that Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson injured one of his sons by spanking him with a tree branch are reviving a debate about corporal punishment in a country where it is on the decline but still widely practiced in homes and schools.

In the eyes of a Texas grand jury, Peterson crossed the line when he repeatedly struck his son with a tree branch, or switch, in May. Peterson's attorney has said he has never run from what happened -- and that Peterson was inflicting the same discipline he endured as a child.

"Obviously, parents are entitled to discipline their children as they see fit, except when that discipline exceeds what the community would say is reasonable," Montgomery County Prosecutor Phil Grant said about 12 hours after Peterson was booked and released from jail on $15,000 bond. He is charged with causing injury to a child age 14 or younger.

Here is some background about corporal punishment and its prevalence:

Q: Where is it legal?

A: In every state in the country, a parent can legally hit their child as long as the force is "reasonable." What's considered reasonable varies from place to place and in many instances the question is left up to a jury in a kind of community-standard test. Generally, though, the law draws the line when the force causes an injury. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child defines it as any physical punishment intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light.

In Texas, where Peterson is accused, punishment is abusive if it causes injury. While a blow that causes a red mark that fades in an hour is not likely to be judged abusive, a blow that leaves a bruise, welt, or swelling, or requires medical attention, could be judged abusive.

Q: How is it used in schools?

A: In 19 states, it's still legal for personnel in schools to practice "paddling." An estimated total of 223,190 students were subjected to it in the 2005-2006 school year, according to the most recent data gathered by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. That was an 18 percent decline from the previous survey.

One of those states, Alabama, entered the spotlight in September last year when an outraged mother protested over a corporal punishment parental consent form sent home by her child's elementary school. It spelled out a requirement for parents who don't want their children physically disciplined to opt out and inform the principal on an annual basis.

A 2009 study by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union found a disproportionate number of students struck by educators were disabled, at 18.8 percent of the total during the 2006-2007 school year.

The issue is generally left up to states and individual school districts, but in Congress, U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat, re-introduced legislation in June that would withhold federal funds from schools that permit corporal punishment. The bill has not advanced out of committee.

Q: Are parents who were spanked as children more likely to spank?

A: In defending Peterson's actions, his attorney said he was only exerting the same kind of discipline he experienced as a child growing up in East Texas. That's not an unusual scenario, experts say, and courts will sometimes consider past abuse as a mitigating factor when sentencing a defendant. But it shouldn't be taken as an excuse, says Victor Vieth, an expert in child abuse prevention training.

"Survivors more than others are offended when courts do that because it perpetuates this myth that we are destined to continue abuse in our family and that's not true. We do have a choice," says Vieth, a former prosecutor who directs the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center in Winona, Minnesota.

Q: Have views changed over time?

A: More than state legislatures or the courts, it is ordinary people who are tightening the legal standard on corporal punishment given that it's often a jury that decides whether force was "reasonable." As views change, Vieth says it's become easier to prosecute abuse cases.

"If you get to the point where you're drawing blood and there are multiple cuts and bruises, most prosecutors today would file charges and most jurors would say that's out of bounds because very few parents engage in striking their children at that level anymore," Vieth says.

There are also signs that some religious communities that once considered corporal punishment sanctioned by scripture are turning away from the practice, he says.

Q: How does the U.S. compare?

A: Thirty-nine countries prohibit corporal punishment in all settings, including at home, where most abuse occurs. Those nations range from Sweden and Germany to South Sudan and Turkmenistan.

Worldwide, about six in 10 children between the ages of 2 and 14 are subjected to corporal punishment by caregivers on a regular basis, according to a UNICEF report released this month. The report also found that people with less education and wealth are more likely to support corporal punishment.

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