Baker V. Owen

423 U.S. 907 (1975)

Affirmed 395 Fed Supp. 294

    Facts : A student was struck twice with a paddle for throwing a ball at a time other than a designated play period. The child's parent had previously requested that the child not be corporally punished by the school, and sued in a North Carolina Federal District Court alleging that the punishment violated both the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

    Issue: Can school administrators administer corporal punishment against parental wishes?

    Decision: Yes, administrators can administer corporal punishment in place of parents. (in loco parentis) The court rejected the Eighth Amendment claim holding that the punishment in this case did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Regarding the Fourteenth Amendment claim, the court rejected the plaintiff’s assertion of a parental right to determine disciplinary methods for her child, but held that due process protections were constitutionally required.

    Reasoning: The court explained that at a minimum due process required that:

    • corporal punishment may not be used unless students were informed that specific misbehavior could occasion its use, and should never be employed as a first line of punishment except for antisocial or disruptive misconduct that shocks the conscience.
    • corporal punishment must occur in the presence of another school official that has been informed in the presence of the student and prior to punishment of the reason for punishment; and
    • upon parental request, the reason for punishment and the name of the witnessing official must be provided. In 1975 the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed Baker v. Owen without comment.
    Significance: The Court established guidelines for administering corporal punishment determining that students must be warned in advance, other forms of behavior modification must be tried, only reasonable force can be used, parents must be notified and there must be an adult witness.

    Note: Two years later in Ingraham v. Wright the U.S. Supreme Court held that procedural due process safeguards for corporal punishment were not constitutionally required. Twenty-seven states have now banned the practice. But at the Federal level, a see-no-evil, speak-no-evil policy prevails. Virtually no one in a position of national influence or authority seems willing to do what it takes to change this explaining that since it was regulated to the level of common law the issue of school corporal punishment can only be dealt with at state and local levels. In the meantime, Ingraham v. Wright continues to define schoolchildren's rights, under the Constitution.

    Although not constitutionally required, unfortunately some states and local districts viewed procedural safeguards for corporal punishment like those articulated in Baker v. Owen as "good educational policy", and mandated similar procedural safeguards by statute or local rules.


Corkill, Phillip. The Law and American Education. Tucson, Arizona. 1991 (Lecture presented at the Flowing Wells School District Administrative Office).

John Dayton (1994). Corporal Punishment in Public Schools: The Legal and Political Battle Continues. Education Law Reporter, 89, 729-740. Reprinted in Education Law Quarterly: Outstanding case comments and articles, 3, 448-459.

Important Landmark Cases in Educational Law

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