When my older brother was about 11 or 12, he came home with a bad report card. My father took off his leather belt, and smacked my brother with it. We had these captain-style beds that ran parallel in our shared room. I turned my back to the wall because I didn’t want to look. I just closed my eyes, and listened to my brother apologize and promise to do better, as our dad smacked over and over and repeated, “You need to shape up.”
To this day, I’m still not sure what “shape up” meant, but I assume it had something to do with getting better grades.
I couldn’t help but think of this moment when I came across a recent study in JAMA Pediatrics. Using data from Florida, researchers reviewed calls to a state child abuse hotline and compared them with school report card release dates across one academic year. Data was collected in a 265-day window from September 2015 to May 2016 in 64 Florida counties where report card release dates were available. What they found was a four-fold increase in reported physical child abuse on Saturdays after a Friday report card release.
So let’s try to wrap our heads around that. If a report card is bad and it comes out on a Friday, the next day the children with poor grades are four times more likely to be abused. I was raised in the ’80s, when corporal punishment was much more prevalent, but I naively assumed this sort of thing wasn’t so common anymore.
Turns out I was wrong.
Naturally, it gets more complicated. What the study also found was that if report cards came out during the school week, there was no significant increase in confirmed child abuse cases. I scratched my head a little bit there, and apparently so did the researchers.
Education Week talked to Melissa Bright, the lead author of the study and a University of Florida assistant research scientist in early-childhood studies. As of right now, they only have assumptions as to why this is the case.
“Parents might drink or use drugs more on weekends,” Bright suggested. “Or they could calculate that any injuries the child receives on a weekend would be less noticeable a few days later. Or parents prone to lose their temper or use corporal punishment in response to bad grades may simply have less time to look at or stew over report cards delivered during the work week.”
I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I cringed a little reading that paragraph, and I’ll tell you why. Back to the story about my brother…My father interpreted his bad grades as a sign of disobedience and laziness. It wasn’t until my brother was in his early 30s that he was finally diagnosed with high functioning autism and other special needs. The last thing he needed was to be whipped with a belt. What he needed were learning strategies and possible medication for his conditions. When I think back on that moment, it felt like my father was beating my brother because he couldn’t park a car that was missing a steering wheel.
I’ve worked in higher education for ten years now, and the majority of that time has been with student athletes who were brought into the university with severe learning disabilities. 90% of the time the students who struggle the most need classroom accommodations and organizational skills. That’s what has made the difference. Not corporal punishment.
Naturally, the authors of this study make some recommendations, such as advising schools to release their report cards mid-week. They also suggest accompanying report cards with suggested discipline strategies (aside from corporal punishment) for students who received poor behavior grades.
With the increased availability of online grades, trying to manage students report cards release date might not be an option for very long. As of right now, I can look up my children’s grades at any time, and as someone who has been a teacher, I know that grades can fluctuate dramatically depending on the week and the assignment. I’ve checked my kid’s grades and freaked out for a hot minute until I did the math, and realized that the instructor just made a grade book error. It makes me wonder how many children have received physical abuse because their parents happened to check grades on a Friday, and the instructor went home for the weekend without finishing her grading. Which is no fault of the instructors.
All of it places schools in a precarious situation, trying to manage the release of bad information while weighing the impact it might have on children. But ultimately, the main issue is that corporal punishment is still being used to discipline children. It’s the beginning of 2019, people. It’s time we moved past this.