SUNDAY EDITION| Paddling, still allowed in Kentucky schools, a fading form of discipline
LOUISVILLE, Ky., (WDRB) -- When they discovered a deep bruise and welts on the body of their mentally disabled child, a West Liberty, Ky. couple filed a lawsuit against Morgan County Middle School officials.
The principal at the time had paddled the child as a disciplinary measure – a punishment so forceful that the child -- who had an I.Q. of 42 -- was “physically abused,” according to an investigation by the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
But the parents’ lawsuit, filed in 2008, went nowhere in the courts. A Circuit Court judge threw the case out, and in July, the Kentucky Court of Appeals affirmed that decision.
For starters, corporal punishment is still allowed in Kentucky schools, and the parents had given permission for their child to be spanked that day, since they couldn’t make it to school to calm her down. Also, the principal did not violate district policy, and there was not enough evidence the paddling was excessive.
“While it is unfortunate that bruising occurred, the fact that bruising occurs in the administration of corporal punishment does not automatically equate to a violation” of the current Kentucky law, the courts ruled.
Considered by some to be a relic of a bygone era, paddling is still a legal form of school discipline in Kentucky and 18 other states.
And special needs students, like the middle school child in Morgan County, make up about a quarter of the students paddled in Kentucky, according to a study by Kentucky Youth Advocates, a nonprofit organization that promotes child well-being and opposes paddling.
“An adult shouldn’t be able to take a stick and be able to hit a kid in school,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. “We don’t allow that in jails.”
Local school boards determine whether corporal punishment is permitted, and about half of the state’s 173 public school districts currently allow paddling.
But the actual practice of paddling disobedient students appears to be fading fast.
The number of paddling incidents – as reported by schools to the state – has dropped by nearly half in five years, from 1,569 incidents in 2009 to 823 in 2014, according to Kentucky Youth Advocates’ “Kids Count” data book.
At least one student was paddled in 42 of Kentucky’s 120 counties in 2009, according to state statistics. At that time, the most incidents – 383 – were in eastern Kentucky’s Pike County.
Last year, the number of counties in which a student was paddled fell to 29. The number of students paddled in Pike County fell to 68.
“It is slowly going away,” said Jon Akers, executive director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety at Eastern Kentucky University. “Boards of education don’t want to deal with the liability of that issue, and I don’t think it’s been seen as an effective deterrent for that behavior.”
Paddling was used the most in McCreary County, where 170 students were paddled last year, according to the latest Kids Count data.
But Michael Cash, the interim superintendent in McCreary County, said he will try to change that if he gets the job full-time.
“I quit using corporal punishment years ago myself,” Cash said. “If I’m here long enough, I will take it in front of the board to have it removed. I don’t think it’s an effective tool in addressing behavior.”
Superintendents in other counties with the highest use of corporal punishment – Bell, Clinton, Pike and Pulaski – did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Brooks said he has heard from some superintendents who would like to rid corporal punishment from their schools but feel pressure from school board members and citizens to keep the practice.
“They get pressure from parents to ‘use the stick,’” Brooks said. “Folks frequently think about what happened to them when they were in school and how they were raised. Things get romanticized.”
And Akers said some schools across the country who had stopped using corporal punishment have actually brought it back, reasoning that a few swats on the backside is better than forcing the child to miss school through a suspension.
The family in Morgan County who sued the school does not plan to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court, according to their lawyer. The parents were not named in court documents to protect the identity of the child.
But while corporal punishment is still allowed in Morgan County schools, no students have been paddled since 2010, according to state records.
“I don’t think we are convinced corporal punishment yields the best results,” said Jennifer Salyer, a spokeswoman for the Morgan County school district. “We have many other options we can use. We have evolved into a mindset … of trying to educate and teach positive behaviors.”
Salyer said schools can still use corporal punishment as a last resort, but many are instead emphasizing the involvement of behavioral counselors and parents.
“We have other methods we feel are yielding a more positive response,” she said.
In fact, some studies show corporal punishment may have harmful effects on students, including increased aggression.
“The evidence around its lack of effectiveness is pretty much gospel among the K-12 community,” Brooks said.
And he said the Kentucky School Board Association has advised its members not to issue corporal punishment because of the liability if there is an injury.
Instead of paddling, many schools are now opting for “In-School Removal” – which involves taking students out of the class and putting them in a program or other setting like detention or in-school suspension.
“The pendulum has kind of swung,” said Jackie Wisman, director of Student Due Process for Jefferson County Public Schools, which stopped using corporal punishment more than two decades ago. “We went with a more non-punitive approach to get students to understand rules.”
Still, Akers, with the Center for School Safety, said the biggest deterrents of bad behavior should be the parents.
“The parents should be the main disciplinarians,” he said. “The children should know how to respect each other and respect authority when they come to school.”
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