A tragic ignorance: support for corporal punishment in certain communities

Photo: Montgomery County Police Department

In March 2021, political and community leaders in progressive Montgomery County, Maryland recoiled in horror at the release of a video showing two Black police officers screaming at a Black five-year-old boy who had thrown objects at his teacher, scratched her when she tried to stop him, and ran out of his school in January 2020. The officers’ behavior – including forcing the tiny child into a chair and screaming at full volume only inches from his face – was appalling enough that it resulted in brief suspensions for the two officers and the settlement of a lawsuit filed by the child’s mother, as recently revealed by the Washington Post. This incident drew attention to the fact that bad police behavior extends beyond inappropriate use of their guns. But there has been little focus on another systemic issue raised by this incident – one that may be even more destructive to at-risk children – and that is the widespread acceptance and promotion of corporal punishment among authority figures such as police.

The video of the 2020 incident is difficult to watch. It shows the two police officers, one male and one female, forcing the child into a chair and screaming into his face as he cries, coughs and hyperventilates. While disparaging and threatening him, they repeatedly prescribe corporal punishment as the remedy for the child’s behavior. “So this is why people need to beat their kids,” states Officer Dionne Holliday as she marches the boy into the building.” I hope your mama lets me beat you,” “Oh my God I’d beat him so bad!” Officer Kevin Christmom chimes in telling the child he misbehaves “because you don’t get no whupping.” “He’s bad. That’s what it is. Because no-one is correcting him,” adds Officer Holliday. As the child cries, gasps, and coughs, the officers continue to lament his bad behavior and upbringing, saying he should be “crated” since he was acting “like a beast.

When she arrives, the little boy’s mother’s top priority is not to comfort him but rather to order him to take off his shirt to demonstrate the lack of marks. It appears that, while on the telephone with the school, she heard one of the officers wondering what was going on in her home, so she wanted to show them that she was not abusing her son. The two officers hasten to reassure her. Says Officer Christmon: “We believe it is the exact opposite.” And the Officer Holliday chimes in, saying “Yeah, we want you to beat him.” The harassed mother insists she cannot beat her son because she does not want to go to prison or lose her child, but the officers insist that there is no such risk. The officers take the mother into a conference room in order to continue their discussion of appropriate discipline away from the child. The boy’s mother insists that she had been told by two school staff that they would call CPS if she spoke about beating her son. Officer Christmom said “you have two uniformed police officers telling you the law,” adding that “when my girlfriend beat her daughter, the officer said do what you need to do, just don’t kill her. Added Officer Holliday, “All I’m telling you is beat that ass.” The mother and the officers appear to bond over their belief that Black people discipline differently from Whites and the officers suggest that she disregard the statements of White school staff.

The child is brought into the room to face his mother’s wrath. After chastising him for his behavior, his mother asks, “What mommy gonna do?” “Beat me on the butt,” responds the little boy. You want me to keep beating your ass?” asked Mom. “You want her to let me do it?” asks Officer Holliday. “I don’t like bad children. Bad, disrespectful children. I think they need to be beaten.” The mother confesses that she has been so frustrated with her son’s behavior at school that she considered finding a therapist. But the officers discarded that option quickly. “He’s just bad,” says Officer Holliday. The officer adds that her mother beat her with anything at hand, including a telephone cord, and told her children, “When CPS comes let them take all of you.” Officer Christmom reiterates: “you can beat your child, just don’t leave no cuts, no cigarette burns…..” The boys’ mother parts with the officers on good terms, and a school staff member lets her know that her son has received two days suspension, clearly adding to the beating she has been licensed to give.

The degree of ignorance displayed by these police officers cannot be overstated. Researchers have been unanimous in finding that corporal punishment is harmful to children and worsens behavior rather than improving it. In an updated policy statement that strengthened its opposition to corporal punishment, the American Academy of Pediatrics found no evidence in the research literature of long-term benefits from corporal punishment and “a strong association between spanking children and subsequent adverse outcomes.” These bad outcomes include a greater likelihood of physical injury among the youngest children; negative impact on the parent-child relationship; increased aggression and defiance among children; increased risk of mental health disorders and cognition problems; and an increased likelihood of adult health problems.

In her book, Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America, the Black child advocate Stacey Patton contends that corporal punishment in the Black community grew out of the struggle to survive centuries of enslavement followed by Jim Crow and continued state violence. As she explains in a brilliant article about this case, the use of corporal punishment to ensure survival continues today as “many Black parents invoke their fear of their children being harassed, arrested, beaten or killed by police to justify whupping their children. Corporal punishment of Black children is widely considered a necessary step in protecting them from police violence.” But in fact, as Patton points out, corporal punishment has the opposite effect, leading to more problematic behavior at school and in the community, not less. As she puts it, “The last thing any police officer should be telling parents, especially Black parents, is to hit their children.”

Thankfully, the use of corporal punishment appears to be declining in the US. But poor and marginalized families are often late in adopting social trends, whether it be smoking cessation or diet and exercise. Moreover, nineteen states, mostly in the south, allow corporal punishment by school staff. It’s unlikely that police training can change officers’ ingrained beliefs, just as parents can attend any number of parenting classes without changing their minds about the value of corporal punishment. What is needed is a national effort to change social norms around corporal punishment.

Such an initiative already exists but needs more support from governments. Several organizations have collaborated on a national initiative to end corporal punishment, which is working to change social norms about the hitting of children. This alliance has announced a free virtual conference on October 14, 2022. One of the workshops will highlight a creative new intervention called “No Hit Zones,” which are institutional policies adopted by hospitals, courts, libraries and other institutions, that promote employee intervention when parents hit, or threaten to hit, their children. Other workshops, including one by Stacey Patton on how to talk about the harms of corporal punishment with African-American parents, will help professionals talk more effectively with parents about this issue. Approaches such as no-hit zones, professional training, and public health messaging campaigns, need support from federal, state and local governments.

Perhaps I have spent too much time analyzing one video, which may be atypical. But the tone of it rings true with what I have seen and heard as a social worker in the District of Columbia, and read in the writings of authors like Stacey Patton. This video sheds light on the language and thinking of people with whom many policymakers and analysts have little contact. We are rarely given this opportunity to hear what people are saying when they don’t expect it to be publicized. It is important that we learn from this disturbing video. With a widely-acknowledged mental health crisis among American children and youth, this is no time to ignore the promotion of corporal punishment by police and other authority figures.