‘Matilda’ Spotlights an Unsettling Truth: Spanking in Schools Is Still Pervasive in the U.S.

Over 70,000 public school students per year are subject to corporal punishment in the U.S.—one of the only industrialized countries where it has not been outlawed.

Matilda the Musical stars Emma Thompson as Agatha Trunchbull. (Dan Smith / Netflix)

The sins of Headmistress Trunchbull—Roald Dahl’s antagonist in Matilda the Musical, which opened in select U.S. theaters on Dec. 9—are many. She holds a young boy upside down in front of the class and mocks him, drags one young pupil by her pigtails and locks children in “the Chokey,” a terrifying closet where they spend hours considering their transgressions. Trunchbull is a notorious villain, easy to dismiss “in the real world” because she’s a caricature of a figure in education that seems outdated and hyperbolized.

Don’t be so quick to dismiss Matilda as fiction, though. You might be surprised to learn that corporal punishment is still practiced in schools nationwide and is legal in 19 U.S. states. 

While the much-anticipated film adaptation of Matilda, starring Emma Thompson as Trunchbull, will be sure to delight film-goers of all ages this holiday season, the unsettling truth is that approximately 70,000 K-12 public school students are subject to corporal punishment annually. As a result of sanctioned punishment in schools, thousands of students require medical treatment each year, and many suffer serious injuries and long-term damages. It is still so pervasive and cruel that the details of the incidents are almost indistinguishable from those at Crunchem Hall. U.S. teachers and administrators “routinely physically restrain students or confine them alone in small rooms” and, sadly, parents are very often unaware unless the abuse results in serious physical harm or death. 

And rather than moving closer toward a moral north, the United States is regressing. This past June, the school board in Cassville, Mo., voted to bring back corporal punishment—the district had stopped using the paddle as a form of punishment over two decades ago. 

The U.S. is, shockingly, one of only a small handful of industrialized countries in the world where corporal punishment in schools has not been outlawed. It is also the only country that has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which also clearly outlaws corporal punishment and protects children against “cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.”  

While approximately 60 countries worldwide have gone as far as to even outlaw physical violence in the home, the United States remains beholden to social norms that allow for the misplaced and outdated mindset of “spare the rod, spoil the child.”

Southern states make up the bulk of the confirmed instances of corporal punishment in schools, and Mississippi accounts for nearly 30 percent of the cases in the country.

But the statistics are alarming even in states like New York, where corporal punishment is banned. An investigation found 1,600 confirmed cases from 2016-2021, and 18,000 underlying complaints—suggesting that the issue is likely happening behind classroom doors across the United States.

What’s more: Research shows that corporal punishment is disproportionately used against Black children and children with disabilities. Black boys are twice more likely to be physically punished than white boys and Black girls are three times more likely than their white counterparts. 

In the United States, school beatings continue even in the face of staunch objections from the medical community that corporal punishment does more harm than good. The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a statement strongly advocating against corporal punishment. In fact, it found that corporal punishment is linked to an increased risk of negative behavioral, cognitive, psychosocial and emotional outcomes for children. 

Black boys are twice more likely to be physically punished than white boys and Black girls are three times more likely than their white counterparts. 

Matilda captures our hearts and imaginations because, in the end, she triumphs—Trunchbull suffers a fate befitting a villain and Matilda is adopted by the lovely Miss Honey. The audience is spared a deeper reckoning over the lifelong harm and trauma caused by the punishments suffered at the hands of a misguided adult.

In reality, laws against corporal punishment aren’t enforced; thousands of complaints against school administrators and teachers are never fully investigated; and most children aren’t empowered to report abuse due to an uneven power dynamic, and fear of retribution. 

It’s time that our communities and laws take aggressive steps to not just outlaw this practice—but to change the hearts and minds of both teachers and parents by promoting humane and effective practices that lead to long-term, positive changes in behavior.

Congress must offer federal protection against corporal punishment in schools—and that means passing the Ending the Corporal Punishment in Schools Act. It’s clear that left to the status quo—in states’ hands—corporal punishment will prevail. 

In 1979, Sweden was the first nation to outlaw corporal punishment in their homes and schools by demonstrating that it’s not only ineffective but also detrimental to children psychologically.

Short of a federal ban or another case being heard in the Supreme Court challenging Ingraham v. Wright, we must ramp up efforts to ban it in the 19 remaining states. Important legislative pushes are underway in states like Kentucky and Mississippi, where corporal punishment in schools has been particularly problematic.

In jurisdictions where corporal punishment is already illegal, we must ensure that the laws that protect our children are enforced. On the heels of the New York investigation, for example, the state immediately began warning schools that they have a duty to report corporal punishment. Children desperately need this level of enforcement across all states.

Finally, we must change the social norms that continue to validate corporal punishment in the 21st century. We have good reason to believe that setting good precedent matters. In 1979, Sweden was the first nation to outlaw corporal punishment in their homes and schools by demonstrating that it’s not only ineffective but also detrimental to children psychologically. This then caused a “norm cascade” in several neighboring countries— Finland followed suit in 1983, Norway in 1987—tipping off a snowball effect that forged across Europe and continued for decades.

A way of ensuring laws that no longer serve us are jettisoned? Electing more women to public office is an almost failsafe way of guaranteeing protection for children. Corporal punishment was more often outlawed in nations with high numbers of women in elected office.

It’s comforting, in watching movies like Matilda the Musical, to see that the antagonist gets her comeuppance. It’s incumbent on us to take the necessary action in the real world: in enacting these changes, we can make Matilda more fiction than fact.

Let’s leave it to the movies to re-enact—not our schools.

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Melissa L. Breger is President William McKinley distinguished professor in law and public policy at Albany Law School. She's the author of the book Exploring Norms and Family Laws across the Globe and co-author of the study, “Paddling the Pupils: The Legality (or Not) of Corporal Punishment in Schools” (Fall, 2023). She is an expert in child advocacy, family law and gender equality.