Corporal punishment and the disabled student

An orderly school environment is considered by many to be a necessary part of the best educational environment. Many school officials are willing to do what they can to enforce order so that education can occur. Some exasperated school officials are willing to try anything to move on to the job of educating. Sometimes the efforts are ineffective, and sometimes the efforts are just unfair. In 2014, the US Department of Education (USDOE) released a study (and others replicated) that show suspensions disproportionally affect students of color. Later, in 2016, John B King (Secretary of USDOE) urged governors to give up corporal punishment by saying that it, “teaches children that physical force is an acceptable means of solving problems.”

Disproportionality is still an issue and exasperated when the students are less able to understand the message of the punishment. Disabled students can be challenging, but the same reason that they are challenging is the reason why corporal punishment ineffective. The logic leads to valid questions as to why use corporal punishment on disabled students at all?

Our study is based on data collected by the Office of Civil Rights in the USDOE for the 2015-16 school year. Nationally, corporal punishment is rarely used. In states where it is legal, it is only used in some districts/schools. Our analysis was limited to the nine states where corporal punishment is legally practiced: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas and schools were it is used at least once. The database indicated 94,577 students received corporal punishment in 4,524 schools.

When we compared incidents of corporal punishment for disabled students to other students, the results were shocking. Students with disabilities were significantly more likely to receive corporal punishment than other students. Across the nine states, corporal punishment was administered to 7.3% of disabled students compared to 5.2% of other students. Each state (except Oklahoma, NSD) was significantly more likely to administer corporal punishment to disabled students than other students.

If we cannot agree to transition to more effective and humane disciplinary measures, at least we should be able to agree that it should not be used disproportionally to a segment where it is less effective. It is time for a national conversation. Beyond the academic subjects, what do we want to teach our children? What kind of adult do we want them to be? What we show our children as acceptable options is more likely to be what they consider to be acceptable as adults.

Dick, S. J, Prejean, K. D., & Fossey, R. (2018). School-based corporal punishment of students with disabilities: A law and policy analysis. Education Law Reporter, 358 , 733-740.

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