Is Paddling a Student a Crime?

On the first day of elementary school each year, our teacher displayed her paddle, which was wooden with a short, solid handle. The paddle portion had holes drilled through its core.  Most school years, someone (always a boy, in my recollection), wound up being paddled. Times have changed for most students. But because a handful of schools in North Carolina still employ corporal punishment, questions continue to arise regarding when such punishment crosses the line between permissible school discipline and unlawful assault. 

Which schools paddle children?  Until 1991, local boards of education in North Carolina were prohibited from barring corporal punishment in public schools. Since that time, local boards of education have been authorized to decide whether to allow such punishment in their districts.  G.S. 115C-390.4.  Public school districts that permit corporal punishment must adopt policies that require:

  • Corporal punishment to be administered outside the presence of other students;
  • Only a teacher, principal or assistant principal be allowed administer corporal punishment;
  • Another teacher, principal or assistant principal be present for the punishment;
  • The witness be informed beforehand and in the student’s presence of the reason for the punishment;
  • The school to notify the student’s parent that corporal punishment has been administered;
  • The person who administered the punishment to provide the student’s parent with a written explanation of the reasons and the name of the witness;
  • The school to maintain records of each time corporal punishment was used and why;
  • That no excessive force, which includes force that results in injury to a child that requires medical attention beyond simple first aid, be used; and
  • That corporal punishment not be administered on a student whose parent or guardian has stated in writing that corporal punishment may not be used on the student.


In addition, G.S. 115C-390.3 permits school personnel to use reasonable force to control behavior when necessary to correct students or maintain order.

According to this 2015 report to the General Assembly, public schools in five counties used corporal punishment in the 2013-14 fiscal year:  Robeson (67 uses), Macon (24 uses), Graham (22 uses), Swain (8 uses), and Onslow (1 use). Males were corporally punished five times more often than females. American Indians comprised the racial group most frequently subject to corporal punished. Corporal punishment was used most often on students in the fourth grade.

Private schools, of course, make their own policies.

When does paddling by a school official amount to criminal assault or child abuse?

Assault on a child under 12. While simple assault and simple assault and battery are Class 2 misdemeanors, an assault on a child under the age of 12 is a Class A1 misdemeanor. G.S. 14-33(c)(3).  The offense of assault is not defined by statute, but instead by common law rules.  State v. Roberts, 270 N.C. 655, 658 (1967).  The North Carolina Supreme Court has defined assault as “an overt act or an attempt, or the unequivocal appearance of an attempt, with force and violence, to do some immediate physical injury to the person of another, which show of force or menace of violence must be sufficient to put a person of reasonable firmness in fear of immediate bodily harm.” State v. Mitchell, 358 N.C. 63, 69-70 (2004) (internal citations omitted). Were there no exception to rule, every disciplinary paddling of a child (at school or home) would constitute assault.

Moderate punishment by school officials allowed. The state supreme court in State v. Pendergrass, 19 N.C. 365 (1837), reversed a schoolmaster’s conviction for assault and battery based on her whipping of a seven-year-old female student with a switch, leaving marks that lasted a few days. The Pendergrass court recognized the authority of schoolmasters and teachers to impose “moderate correction” in the form of corporal punishment. The court described school officials’ authority to administer such discipline as a delegation of the parental power to “train up and qualify their children [] for becoming useful and virtuous members of society.” Id. at 365-66.  The court distinguished moderate from immoderate punishment based upon the nature of the injury inflicted and the intention of the person administering the punishment.  As to injury, the court explained that “[a]ny punishment . . .  which may seriously endanger life, limbs or health, or shall disfigure the child, or cause any other permanent injury, may be pronounced in itself immoderate,” while “any correction, however severe, which produces temporary pain only, and no permanent ill, cannot be so pronounced, since it may have been necessary for the reformation of the child, and does not injuriously affect its future welfare.” Id. at 366. The court “laid down as a general rule, that teachers exceed the limits of their authority when they cause lasting mischief; but act within the limits of it, when they inflict temporary pain.” Id. The court further held that even moderate punishment is unlawful if the school official administering the punishment acted with “wickedness of purpose.” Id.

So what’s lasting mischief? Norms have certainly changed since the time Pendergrass was decided.  Nevertheless, its characterization of lasting mischief remains the controlling standard for determining when corporal punishment is moderate. The sort of paddling that I recall being threatened in my elementary years (3 licks with a wooden paddle), which (so I hear) inflicts fleeting pain and results in temporary marks or bruises, is unlikely to meet the “lasting mischief” threshold or to be deemed unreasonable in violation of G.S. 115C-390.3Cf. Baker v. Owen, 395 F. Supp. 294, 303 (M.D.N.C. 1975) (concluding that a teacher’s administering of “two licks” to a student’s  buttocks “with a wooden drawer divider a little longer and thicker than a foot-ruler,” which caused a stinging sensation and bruise marks which remained for several days did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment).  In addition, this type of paddling would not run afoul of the excessive force prohibition in G.S. 115C-390.4 as it would not require medical attention. Thus, this type of corporal punishment does not constitute assault on a child under 12.

What about child abuse? Any person providing care to or supervising a child under the age of 16 who intentionally inflicts physical injury upon the child commits child abuse, a Class A1 misdemeanor. G.S. 14-318.2. While there are no cases applying the Pendergrass rule to a prosecution for the current-day crime of child abuse, the state supreme court has applied the moderate punishment rule to charges that a child was battered by a parental figure. See Jessica Smith, North Carolina Crimes, A Guidebook on the Elements of Crime 194 (7th ed. 2012). The court in State v. Alford, 68 N.C. 322 (1873) reversed a defendant’s conviction for battery that was based upon his “whipping” of his girlfriend’s son, who lived with the defendant and his girlfriend. The court noted that there was no evidence of malice; instead the boy was punished for misbehaving.  Furthermore, the court explained that no permanent injury was inflicted and no “improper instrument” was used. Thus, the court determined that the defendant was entitled to a verdict of not guilty. I would expect the same reasoning to foreclose the argument that moderate school discipline constitutes misdemeanor child abuse.

10 thoughts on “Is Paddling a Student a Crime?”

  1. When we moved here from NY and my daughter would be attending first grade, as a retired police officer I was mortified when I heard that corporal punishment was still in existence here. I wrote a letter to the school board and the school of attendance that under no circumstances would they be allowed to paddle my daughter and if they did I would sue all individuals involved plus the school district. I consulted an attorney to clarify my parental rights in this state and the limit of the schools. It never happened since my daughter was a respectful child who knew right from wrong. In NY we arrested parents who hit their child and left marks but apparently in the this state time has stood still and the 1950’s are alive and well! Only an ignorant parent would stand by and let anyone hit their child…y’all!

    • So you come from New York and then demand that those who have lived in the Tarheel State far longer than you to change their way of thinking to reflect your smug NY values? Then you label anyone who believes or parents differently than you as ignorant? Ever wonder why native North Carolinians don’t like “Yankees?” Why didn’t you stay in New York if it was so progressive and wonderful?

    • I agree that schools should not paddle kids . But as a parent I used , rarely as a last resort , a mild switching when my three kids were beyond the talking stage . As my Dad said , you cannot reason with an undeveloped mind , and when open rebellion or egregious conduct was displayed I let them know that I was not all talk , and that there were consequences for their actions . After so much ” discussion ” all kids hear is ” blah , blah , blah ” and know that if they are willing to hear yet more talk they can do as they wish . Done without anger or excessive force corporal punishment is a wake up call that let’ s a kid know that they do not have the last word and that open defiance of the rules will not be tolerated . All the time out’ s and attempts to reason with an immature mind mean nothing when a child is looking for definite boundaries . By the way , welcome to Dixie and I hope you respect those traditions you may not agree with .

  2. I respect your opinion. However, if you do not agree with North Carolina State law then you need to work to change the law or you need to move back to the State of New York.

  3. The xenophobia is duly noted and regarded as childish, locker-room talk.

    As a 71-year-old NC native, I personally welcome the justifiably irked New Yorker here and praise his attitude toward corporal punishment. Teaching a child by hitting her is teaching violence. The psychologists and psychiatrists agree. But people still cling to ancient ideas rooted in their goofy holy book.

    I am glad to know that in Asheville where I live the Buncombe County school administration has issued a rule forbidding corporal punishment of public school students. Although Asheville is a sullied little town besmirched with corrupt public officials, they got it right on this issue.

  4. Some arguments to consider:

    1. School paddling is inconsistent with Title IX, because it inherently impacts boys and girls unequally. Unlike boys, girls who have entered puberty would have to reveal intimate personal information in order to avoid the chance of this punishment being unfairly compounded by menstrual discomfort or of being a risk factor where there is the possibility of pregnancy or other female-specific vulnerabilities. Either the school callously and/or recklessly does not address such concerns when paddling girls — concerns which many students may be too embarrassed or intimidated to volunteer — or it intrusively does inquire about them. There are at least two known incidents where paddling had medical consequences due to a student being female, one in Dunn, N.C. from 1981 (ref: “Don’t Inflict My Pain on Others,” by Shelly S. Gaspersohn, USA Today, Oct. 23, 1984) and another in Scioto County, Ohio from 1997 (ref: “Some Ohio schools not sparing the rod – Corporal punishment allowed in districts,” The Plain Dealer (Cleveland), Sept. 24, 2000).

    With children of any age, moreover, discomfort following a paddling is apt to be greater for girls, due to pressure on the inflamed and/or contused area of their bodies resulting from their normal mode of urination or, alternatively, to muscular discomfort if they awkwardly avoid this pressure. This disparity was illustrated in the case of an 8-year-old in Florida who had to use her hands to support herself astride a toilet in order to urinate without aggravating the lingering pain she was experiencing (ref: State v. Paul E. King, Florida Supreme Court Case No. SC05-258).

    2. The general immunity to litigation — if not also criminal prosecution — which some state laws — e.g. Texas — and the courts have given teachers and principals when it comes to paddling effectively and unconstitutionally denies students and parents the remedies that were essential to the Supreme Court’s decision in 1977 upholding school corporal punishment.

    3. The balance of available redress in the case of an injurious or otherwise unjust paddling is further weakened by the modern day prospect of unwanted, widespread prurient attention to victims via corporal punishment-themed adult websites, which may inhibit parents from seeking redress for their unjustly paddled child for fear of the publicity such complaints could generate.

    4. The legitimacy of male principals spanking female students is at odds with prevailing sexual harassment codes, which bar male employers from spanking female employees — including minors.

    5. The spanking paddle itself was originally invented not for use on schoolchildren, but rather as a tool for beating slaves. The idea was to have something that would inflict terrible pain without causing the kind of permanent tissue damage that could lower a slave’s market value. While the corporal punishment of slaves has most often been portrayed as using a whip, it was also fairly common practice by the mid 1800s — at least in certain states — to use a paddle instead. This will not be news to anyone who has studied American slavery in depth or seen the 1975 movie “Mandingo.” Although nobody would suggest that students today are paddled with the same degree of severity that slaves were, it is important to recognize that extreme severity is what this instrument was designed for. It is virtually unheard of, moreover, for school personnel to receive any professional training in how to paddle students, to be required beforehand to demonstrate competence at doing it safely and judiciously, to have their paddles inspected and held to any standards of size, weight, composition or craftsmanship, and least of all to have the velocity of their swing measured. Thus, we can reasonably expect that paddlers will often times hit harder than they intend to or, in some cases, hit parts of the body they don’t intend to.

    6. The spanking of kids at school could be videotaped without anyone’s knowledge, which is a lot easier with the tiny cameras they make nowadays. If someone were to circulate that video on the Internet, it could be really humiliating for the student. Not to mention that there’s a black market for images of children being spanked. The FBI broke up a nationwide child-spanking pornography ring in 2002, incredible as that may sound, and at least two of its members worked in public schools. [See also Principal Tim Mizelle, Willow Hill Elementary, Portal GA, 1994; ref:

    7. Despite dire warnings that school discipline would deteriorate if paddling went away, Memphis has seen a reduction of discipline problems, since enacting its ban. At the national level, one finds that dropout rates, violent crime and other social problems are most concentrated among states and localities where paddling is still allowed. School shootings have occurred most often in states that allow paddling — and paddling may have even been a catalyst for the one in Jonesboro, Arkansas. It is worth noting, moreover, that among the top 100 U.S. schools ranked by Newsweek in 2003, not a single one is a paddling school.

    8. The many groups supporting a ban on corporal punishment include The National Association of School Boards, The American Academy of Pediatrics and The National Association of School Nurses.

  5. It’s nice to know your opinion and I think that there are ways by which we can stop the paddling of kids and also the disobedience by them. I moved to Chicago from New York and I know what the law of my state suggests. Any state you refer but I am with the fact that teaching children a lesson through peaceful manners is the way to go


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