But advocates for the end of corporal punishment say that while these letters were exciting, they have yet to lead to actual progress in Texas, where nearly 30,000 students received corporal punishment in the 2011-2012 school year, according to a Society for Research in Child Development social policy report.
“I did send an announcement around [about King's letter] to other advocates around the country and I did send it to the news media here in Houston and Harris County, but there's no response to it,” said Jimmy Dunne. (Houston Independent School District, like many other urban school districts in Texas, doesn't allow corporal punishment, though other nearby school districts do.) Even so, Dunne was still happy that the letter came out at all. “That's the first time that I know of a Secretary of Education actually doing something like that.”
Dunne worked as a math teacher at Houston schools in the '60s and, he says, paddled students. Yet he soon started questioning the practice, especially after he saw another teacher paddle one student. “I witnessed another teacher paddling, like, an 11-year old. Five hard swats, and the boy would start crying and begging for mercy,” he recalled. “And I thought it was just a pitiful situation, so I complained to the principal about it. And then I went before the school board in January of 1981, and called it legalized child abuse and said it should be abolished. That's how I got things started.”
Since then, Dunne has worked as an activist to try to end corporal punishment, writing letters to lawmakers and holding demonstrations in front of the Capitol. But the last two bills on corporal punishment, he said, didn't even get a hearing.
George Holden says that many Texans believe that, because they were paddled and turned out fine, corporal punishment in schools isn't necessarily a big deal. But for Holden, an expert on child development and corporal punishment who's on faculty at Southern Methodist University, that's just not true.
Research shows that kids who are paddled often end up becoming aggressive and depressed, he said, and that it's rarely an effective way to actually teach a child something. “And then just one third type of reason is, it violates individuals' rights not to be hit by anyone. And everyone accepts that for adults…but we do allow an adult to hit a child in this case. But it's actually a violation of children's rights not to be hit.”
King's letter also points out that students of color and students with disabilities are more likely to face paddling in schools. Once, after Holden taught a class on corporal punishment, a visually impaired student approached him to tell her own story of being paddled.
“When she was I think in the seventh grade, she was given a Braille book to read, and someone had marked in it. And when she returned it to the teacher, the teacher noticed the markings and was furious. And so the student got paddled, even though her mother had opted out of the paddling,” Holden said, referring to the fact that in Texas school districts that do allow corporal punishment, parents are allowed to mandate that they don't want their kids to get paddled. However, that rule is not always observed. Earlier this year, in the DeSoto Independent School District, a teacher mistakenly paddled a kindergartner whose mother had opted him out of paddling. The mother eventually moved her kindergartner out of that school, because he was so distressed by the experience, Holden said.
His student was equally upset by what had happened to her. “This was maybe six years after that had happened, that I met her, and she was still brought to tears when she was talking about it.”
Holden is a member of a group named the US Alliance to End the Hitting of Children, which he said plans to capitalize on the letters, using them to urge lawmakers to ban corporal punishment. “But in Texas,” he said, “I'm hesitant to get too optimistic.”