California Corporal Punishment in Public Schools Laws

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Corporal punishment in California schools has been outlawed for state-run schools since 1986. While other states may allow for corporal punishment as long as parents agree to the disciplinary measure, California will not allow teachers, administrators, principals or other public school employees to administer corporal punishment. There are a handful of excepted circumstances, generally to protect property, students or adults from harm. Surprisingly, state laws do not prohibit corporal punishment in private schools.

California Corporal Punishment Laws

Before exploring corporal punishment limits on employees at California schools, it's important to know what rights parents have to discipline their children in California. These define the maximum limits for the force used to discipline a child in the state before the punishment is considered child abuse. Parents in California can use corporal punishment to punish their children, but only when they fall under the umbrella of what the state considers to be reasonable discipline. California corporal punishment laws state that in order for physical punishment to be legal, it must:

  • Be genuinely disciplinary.
  • Be warranted in the specific circumstances.
  • Not incorporate excessive force.

In other words, the punishment must be appropriate for the situation and cannot meet the definition of abuse, which happens when a child is subjected to cruel or inhuman punishment or an injury so severe that it results in trauma, such as punching, kicking and choking. These are always illegal to do to a child in California.

Obviously these requirements are very subjective, which is why cases of purported child abuse that involve discipline attempts have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. In fact, the California court of appeals has previously determined that it was OK for one mother to hit her two children on the buttocks with a sandal and for another set of parents to hit their daughter on the buttocks with a wooden spoon so hard that it left bruises. In both cases the parents first tried other discipline measures that did not alter their children's behavior.

Corporal Punishment in Public Schools

California's corporal punishment laws in schools cover only traditional public schools and charter schools, which may be exempted from some rules that bind public schools, but not those involving discipline measures. Under these laws, teachers, principals, administrators and other persons employed by public schools are prohibited from using corporal punishment, which is defined as the willful infliction of physical pain on a student. The Department of Education has defined some exceptions, though, including situations where physical action may be necessary to:

  • Maintain order.
  • Protect property.
  • Protect the health and safety of pupils.
  • Maintain proper and appropriate conditions conducive to learning.

In practice, this means a teacher can use physical force when: breaking up fights between students, stopping a student from damaging property, taking dangerous objects away from students or practicing self defense.

Read More: The Advantages of Corporal Punishment

Limited Circumstances for Use of Force

When force is used in the limited circumstances where it is permitted, no more force shall be used than is necessary. So, for example, while it would be legal for a vice-principal to tackle and wrestle a child with a gun in school in order to take the gun from the student, it would not be OK for a teacher to tackle and wrestle a student who was using a marker to write graffiti on a lunch table.

A specific exception states that students who voluntarily engage in athletics or similar recreational activities may undergo pain and discomfort as a natural part of the sport they are participating in. That being said, it is still illegal for coaches to punish student athletes through the use of corporal punishment or child abuse, including cruel or inhuman punishments. This isn't limited to just physical discipline like spankings, but also to activities like forcing students to run miles without water.

Punishments for Using Corporal Punishment

School teachers can face a number of punishments if they apply more force than a parent is permitted to use for disciplining their child under state law or if they have gone beyond what is necessary to maintain order, to maintain a proper learning environment, to keep students safe and to protect property. When an employee uses corporal punishment on a student, the school may take action against the employee by suspending, demoting or firing a teacher who broke the state's laws against corporal punishment as defined in the school's employee handbook. Additionally, the parents may choose to take action by filing a personal injury lawsuit, which could name the employee, the school and the district as defendants.

The parents may also choose to contact police, and child abuse, assault or battery charges may be filed against the teacher. Child abuse is defined as cruel or inhuman punishments or those that cause traumatic injuries. Assault in California is defined as a threat to injure someone or the actual attempt to do so. Battery is actual infliction of physical violence on someone else. If the teacher is found guilty of criminal charges related to the use of corporal punishment, he may also face discipline on the part of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing and his teaching credential may be suspended or revoked.

Corporal Punishment in Private Schools

California does not prohibit corporal punishment in private schools, despite the fact that the state legislature has stated that because school-aged children are in the most vulnerable and impressionable phase of their lives it is totally unreasonable to allow the integrity and sanctity of their bodies to be given up to physical discipline measures. That means that those employed in private schools can use corporal punishments equal to those used by parents. In order to ensure that the discipline is justified, the employee must meet the same three-part test, showing the act is: disciplinary, warranted for the circumstances, and does not use excessive force.

Given the looser regulations on private school employees, it should not be surprising that it is less common for teachers at these schools to face consequences for their use of corporal punishment. Individual private schools may define their own rules prohibiting such punishments, and teachers employed at schools with policies preventing corporal punishment may be punished for causing any amount of physical pain to students according to the school's employee handbook. Otherwise, employees of private schools get in trouble only if their discipline attempts do not meet the three-part test and cross the line into child abuse. When this happens, they face the same consequences as public school employees, meaning:

  • The teacher and the school may be sued.
  • The teacher may have criminal assault, battery or child abuse charges filed against her.
  • If convicted of a criminal charge, she may also have her teaching credential suspended or revoked.