Advocates call for end to paddling in 45 Kentucky school districts

James Wallace said he and his wife, Tammy, gave permission for the Belfry Middle School principal to paddle their 12-year-old son in November for spitting on another child in a fight.

But Wallace said his son ended up in a hospital emergency room for treatment of bruises and blisters on his buttocks. A board that regulates teachers in Kentucky is investigating the incident in Pike County, which is among 45 school districts in Kentucky that report allowing corporal punishment.

The case comes at a time when the Blueprint for Kentucky's Children, a six-year plan to improve child well-being in Kentucky, is calling for all school districts to stop corporal punishment. Kentucky law allows each district to decide whether to use corporal punishment.

"I believe in local control, but it shouldn't be a ZIP code lottery, where some kids get smacked and some kids don't depending upon where they live," said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.

Thirty-three percent of those paddled during the 2009-10 school year were special education students, said Amy Swann of Kentucky Youth Advocates. Only 13 percent of Kentucky's public school students receive special education.

Swann said the data prompts a worry that "some of those were indeed disciplined for behaviors that were a manifestation of their disability."

Overall, a 2010 Safe Schools Data Project report shows there were 1, 573 incidents of corporal punishment in the 2009-10 school year in Kentucky. That's a 0.3 percent increase from the previous year, but down from the 3,460 incidents reported in the 2005-06 school year, according to the report from the Kentucky Center for School Safety.

In the Pike County case, principal Matt Mercer said in an interview that he did not use excessive force.

Pike County Schools personnel director Ralph Kilgore said he was satisfied after an internal district investigation that Mercer, whose school has recently received national accolades, had followed board policy.

But Kilgore said he still immediately notified social services and other agencies of the allegations, which he said the district took seriously.

Wallace said officials at Williamson Appalachian Regional Hospital contacted Kentucky State Police, who in turned called the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

Family Services spokeswoman Anya Weber said she could not confirm or deny a child protective services investigation because of confidentiality laws.

Wallace said his son has behavior problems, but he considered what happened an assault.

"I couldn't have done a dog like that," he said.

The Kentucky Educational Professional Standards Board, which regulates teachers, has asked its legal staff to conduct an investigation into the matter, said Alicia Sneed, director of legal services.

Sneed said the board gets a few complaints each year about educators who use corporal punishment and if the educator has followed the district policy, the charges have typically been dismissed.

In Pike County, two witnesses must be present during corporal punishment and students' parents must give written consent for the student to be paddled, Kilgore said. No more than three swats are given.

Kilgore said the policy was followed at Belfry Middle School.

"This is a non-issue for me," Mercer said Friday. "We did nothing wrong. We followed procedure to a tee. There was absolutely no abuse."

In addition to having written permission, Mercer said he took the added step of calling the boy's parents. It is the parents' choice for the child to be paddled and the parents are always told that the student can receive an alternative punishment, he said.

"Corporal punishment will always be used as a last resort," Mercer said.

Under Mercer's direction, Belfry Middle School was named as one of five "Kentucky Schools to Watch." It also was given a Blue Ribbon Lighthouse School award by a South Carolina nonprofit group.

Belfry in 2008 had the state's seventh-best standardized test scores, and in 2010 had the state's fourth-best public middle school scores, the Herald-Leader has reported.

Mercer said discipline was only a small component of the school's success.

"I'm not going to say that corporal punishment is why we win awards," Mercer said. "But we do have high expectations for our children."

"There's never an intent to hurt a child," he said, noting that students must "learn that there are consequences to their actions."

Fayette County does not allow corporal punishment.

At least 30 other states have banned paddling outright, according to Brooks, the child advocate.

Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday does not support corporal punishment, said Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education. Gross said state law would likely have to be changed to abolish the practice in Kentucky.

House Education Committee Chairman Carl Rollins, D-Midway, said he would have trouble getting a bill to ban corporal punishment out of his committee.

"While I'm not in favor of corporal punishment, I'd be hesitant to take that control away from local school boards," Rollins said.

Of the students paddled in 2009-10, 65.73 percent were in elementary school, 24.73 percent were in middle school, and 9.54 percent were in high school, said Swann of Kentucky Youth Advocates.

She said corporal punishment continues to be used for minor offenses. The Safe Schools report showed that in 2009-10, 776 corporal punishment incidents were related to disturbing the class and another 298 for defiance of authority.

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