At Bell Central School Center in Pineville, rated “distinguished” in the Kentucky accountability system, principal Greg Wilson said parents of misbehaving students often request that their children be paddled instead of getting suspended and losing time in the classroom.
Corporal punishment, or paddling, is fading as a disciplinary method in Kentucky public schools, dropping from 3,075 incidents in 2005 to 574 in 2015, according to the latest available data. But Bell County is among 25 school districts that reported still using corporal punishment. The state has 173 school districts.
Bell County schools reported 148 incidents of corporal punishment in 2015, the most of any district in the state. Bell Central, a combination elementary and middle school, reported 107 incidents of corporal punishment that school year, according to the Kentucky Department of Education.
“We’re a very high performing school here. Parents don’t want their kids to be out of class,” Wilson said.
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“A lot of us are old school, and parents will ask us if they can use that option. We try many things before we get to that point,” Wilson said, adding, “We don’t do it for running in the hallway or not having a pencil.”
Wilson said at his school, paddling means that a fully clothed child bends over and touches his or her knees. Depending on the age of the child and the infraction, the student is given one to three swats on the backside with a round paddle that is somewhat larger than a ping-pong paddle. There are two witnesses, he said. The person administering the swats is the same gender as the child and is generally an administrator.
Don’t expect the Kentucky General Assembly to prohibit the practice any time soon.
Under the law, corporal punishment can be used in Kentucky public schools, with each district making its own decision. The local district, rather than the Kentucky Department of Education, sets the code of conduct and the discipline policy for students in each school operated by the district. Paddling is not allowed in Fayette County Public Schools.
State Sen. Mike Wilson, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he doesn’t see a need for changing the law.
“There was corporal punishment when I was going to school, and I’m not any worse the wear for it,” said Wilson, R-Bowling Green.
“I’m not a fan of changing the law unless it’s absolutely necessary. At this point, I don’t know that anybody has presented any overwhelming evidence that we need a change in the law.”
In Bell County, Superintendent Yvonne Gilliam said, the decision is left up to principals, and parents have to give their permission.
All parents have the option of requesting that corporal punishment not be administered, she said.
“It works for some students,” said Gilliam. “We use it always with parental backing. It’s never administered to a child whose parents sign the form that they do not want that type of disciplinary action on their child.”
She said she’s had very few complaints from parents.
“I don’t request that any principal use corporal punishment nor do I tell them that they can’t,” she said.
Corporal punishment is not used at the high school level, Gilliam said. The district has six combined elementary and middle schools, she said, but not all use corporal punishment.
The number of paddlings in Bell County Schools is down from 393 in 2005, but Gilliam said she did not plan to intentionally further curb the use of corporal punishment.
“We don’t have a lot of serious disciplinary problems. I feel my schools are extremely safe. We demand high standards of conduct, and we work hard to achieve that,” Gilliam said.
Brad Hughes, spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association, said at least 67 Kentucky school districts have policies permitting corporal punishment. But in 2015, corporal punishment was used in only 25.
“It’s fading out of the disciplinary options in the state. Consistently it’s trending downward,” Hughes said.
Most districts use in-school and out-of-school suspension and other behavior techniques instead of corporal punishment.
I don’t request that any principal use corporal punishment nor do I tell them that they can’t.
Bell County Superintendent Yvonne Gilliam
The school boards association doesn’t recommend corporal punishment. Neither does state Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt, who told the Herald-Leader, “Personally, I don’t believe it is appropriate for adults to be using physical force on children in a school setting.”
Kentucky is one of at least 19 U.S. states that permits corporal punishment in public schools, according to a recent Associated Press article. That concerns Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, a group that has worked for years to eliminate the practice in Kentucky schools.
“It should be an embarrassment to Kentucky,” said Brooks, noting that Kentucky is one of the few places where in public schools “you can legally hit a kid with a stick.”
“It’s encouraging that school leaders have gotten smarter and smarter and stopped doing it. But we can’t let local districts off the hook if they continue to use it,” he said.
State juvenile detention facilities and state residential facilities for children don’t use corporal punishment, Brooks said, and neither should public schools.
“If a legislator is concerned about child abuse, that legislator should be concerned about corporal punishment,” he said. “We’re going to challenge legislators to look at corporal punishment as part of a much broader campaign against child abuse.”
However, Brooks said, “Our strategy has been to work with local districts because we have not sensed a feasibility that action is going to come from Frankfort. I think that’s really disappointing, but that’s the reality. We are realists. We are fearful it doesn’t have a lot of political legs. But that doesn’t mean that folks shouldn’t tackle it.”
Brooks said he is generally a proponent of local autonomy, “but no school district should have the right to practices that are demonstrably injurious to children. And corporal punishment is a headline example of that practice. It puts schools at needless legal risk. It does nothing to really address student management. And it is clearly bad for the child.”
House Education Committee chairman Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, said he would probably support a bill prohibiting corporal punishment in Kentucky public schools.
“We have to have discipline in the schools,” Graham said. “But there are other methods by which we can initiate discipline.”
On the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education “strongly believes that states have the power to change,” Deputy Assistant U.S. Education Secretary Tanya Clay House said in a statement. “We know that the use of corporal punishment tends to be intertwined with other factors, such as a child’s race or disability status.”
An Aug. 23 article in Education Week, a print and online publication, found that rural students are more likely to attend schools allowing corporal punishment. They account for 51 percent of enrollment in schools where at least one student was physically punished in 2013-14. In Kentucky as well, corporal punishment generally is confined to rural districts.
In U.S. classrooms in 2013-14, more than 109,000 students were paddled, swatted or otherwise physically punished, according to an Education Week Research Center analysis of the most recent federal civil rights data. The article said that nationwide, corporal punishment seems to be on a steady decline: from more than 300,000 students in 2000 to more than 109,000 in 2013-14 nationwide, according to Education Department estimates.
In Kentucky, Greenup County schools’ dwindling use of corporal punishment is similar to what happened in other districts in the state.
District officials went from using corporal punishment 25 times in 2010 to zero in 2015. Greenup County Superintendent Sherry Horsley said she was hired as superintendent in 2014.
Corporal punishment, Horsley said, is “not something I would recommend as a first choice because there are lots of other ways to find solutions. As a professional decision, I don’t think it’s a first stop in dealing with student behaviors.”