In Kentucky Schools, Hundreds Of Students Are Struck By Staff Each Year. And It's Legal.
In 19 Kentucky school districts, when a student misbehaves, teachers or principals can still use a paddle to spank students on the behind. Last year, educators used paddling to discipline students at least 284 times — mostly in Eastern and South-Central Kentucky. The state keeps track of how often schools use it, and on who.
Kentucky is one of 19 states where corporal punishment is legal in public schools. That means it’s legal for educators in public schools to inflict pain as a form of discipline, usually through spanking. But state lawmakers are considering legislation that would ban the practice.
How Do Kentucky Schools Use Corporal Punishment?
The policies regulating corporal punishment vary by district, but in most that allow it, the only method permitted is the striking of a student on the rear end with a paddle. In most districts that allow corporal punishment, only a principal or other administrator can deliver the punishment. But at least one district allows any certified staff to use it, including teachers. Most require the punishment to be delivered privately, away from any other students, and in the presence of one to two other certified staff members as witnesses. Some district policies require parents to be notified, and some do not.
Here's part of the corporal punishment policy for Bell County Schools, where schools used corporal punishment 77 times last school year — the most in the state.
Corporal Punishment Still Used, But On The Decline
Kentucky schools use corporal punishment far less than schools in other states where it remains legal. In Mississippi, for example, schools used corporal punishment more than 20,000 times in a single school year, according to the most recent data available.
Here in the Bluegrass state, the practice is on the decline. Ten years ago, 44 districts reported using corporal punishment on more than 1,000 students. But last year, just 13 of the 19 districts where it's allowed reported using a paddle to discipline students.
"We just know a lot more," Kentucky Youth Advocates executive director Terry Brooks said.
Brooks said most districts have done away with the practice as teachers and administrators learn about the negative impacts. In fact, Pulaski County Schools, historically one of the biggest users of corporal punishment, recently updated district policy to ban the practice.
But in some places where corporal punishment persists, Brooks said, it’s not because local leaders wouldn’t want to do away with it. In fact, school boards can save money on their liability insurance if they ban the practice.
"We’ve heard more than once that the superintendent and/or the school board would like to ban it, but they face community pressure not to," Brooks said. "For a lot of folks, that paddle represents orderly and safe environments. You know it’s like ‘we want you to be tough on kids, you got to take a strong stand.’"
WFPL reached out to all 13 Kentucky school districts that reported using corporal punishment last year. But we didn’t hear back in time for this report.
State Lawmakers Considering A Ban
Rep. Steve Riley (R-Glasgow) thinks it’s time for schools stop using corporal punishment altogether. Riley was a school administrator for 19 years, and said he never used the paddle.
"The reason for discipline is to change behavior for good, and I noticed over the years it kept being the same child being spanked time and time again and it wasn’t changing behavior," Riley said.
He said he also noticed that many of the students being spanked were students with special needs. That lines up with national research, showing students with disabilities and black students are more likely to receive corporal punishment than their peers.
Many studies show corporal punishment doesn’t work. In fact, research shows it can have negative impacts on mental health and actually increase aggressive child behavior. And in some cases, educators have injured students.
Carla Hay is a forensic nurse who treats victims of child abuse at the University of Kentucky. She told the House Education Committee that her team once cared for a seven-year-old who was left with “significant bruising” after a paddling from the school principal.
"Bruising — that is very painful," Hay said. "Kids report being unable to sleep, being unable to sit down, being in pain."
Some injuries are less obvious. Hay says getting a paddling can be traumatic, especially for students with a history of trauma.
"There are physical and psychological implications," she said.
The proposed ban has passed the House, and has been sent to a Senate committee for further consideration.