If we needed any evidence that Kentucky, despite its battery plants and growing cities and fancy coffee shops, is still mired in the 19th century, then look no further than Wednesday’s state Board of Education meeting. That’s when board members voted to limit how school personnel get to beat on students who misbehave. They can’t ban corporal punishment in schools, you see, because it’s still a state law. And it’s still a state law because despite the best efforts of Rep. Steve Riley, Republican of Glasgow, the General Assembly hasn’t passed a law to ban it in schools. Local control was the issue, apparently. School districts didn’t want Frankfort telling them they couldn’t beat their kids.
That’s right. In a state with the highest rates of child abuse in the nation, we are going to continue to let 19 school districts, with their parents’ permission, paddle on kids. According to WFPL, in 2019, “educators used paddling to discipline students at least 284 times — mostly in Eastern and South-Central Kentucky.” Paddling. With a wooden board. On the students’ butts. Yes, that’s right.
The state law allowing it wasn’t even passed until 1982. According to Valarie Honeycutt Spears, the numbers have dropped: From 2016-17 to 2021-22, the number of corporal punishment incidents dropped from 317 to 13 so far this school year. There are 156 school districts in Kentucky that explicitly ban corporal punishment, including Fayette County.
But it’s still allowed. Needless to say, kids who act out in school are often already suffering from abuse or neglect or trauma of some kind, so paddling is the last thing they need, especially if school is already a difficult or intimidating place. Terry Brooks, director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, put it much more eloquently in a statement yesterday: “It reinforces using physical aggression as a way to address unwanted behavior and creates a threatening atmosphere that permeates school culture, which can lead to immediate and long-lasting impacts on the child’s physical and mental health, behavior, and educational outcomes.”
The new regulations may slow this process down quite a bit. Schools that still choose to beat their students have to get written consent from parents before school starts and before the paddling begins. Then students have to also receive 30 minutes of counseling from a qualified mental health professional. The regulation also exempts students with an Individual Education Plan (IEP), 504 plan, and those who are classified as homeless or are in foster care.
So that’s good. But state boards of education should not have to create these kind of absurd end run regulations around state-sanctioned child abuse. I mean, we’re trying to raise healthy, well-adjusted kids? And we’re talking about trying to attract modern, hi-tech business to Kentucky and they get to see headlines like this? Surely even the General Assembly could figure out a better image for our state. Can you imagine the economic development folks working this one out? “Kentucky: yes, we paddle your kids, but now they get counseling for it.”
Please, listen to Rep. Riley. Surely we can do better than this.