Landon K., a 6-year-old boy with autism, was in first grade in a Mississippi elementary school when the 300-pound assistant principal picked up an inch-thick paddle and started hitting Landon on the buttocks. His grandmother, Jacquelyn K., told me: “My child just lost it ... he was screaming and hollering ... it just devastated him.”
The fact is that children with disabilities -- including children with autism, children in wheelchairs, and children with learning disorders -- face routine violence in schools at higher rates than their peers. Students with disabilities, only 14 percent of all students nationwide, make up 19 percent of those who suffer corporal punishment.
It's not just paddling, though paddling is bad enough. Jonathan C., a 15-year-old boy with autism, was repeatedly subjected to corporal punishment at his Florida public school. One day, after he screamed in the cafeteria and ran away from a staff member, a male staff member picked him up and flung him on the tile floor, face-first. Staff members dragged him to a meeting room, where the male staff member put him in a chokehold.
His mother described what happened: “Three or four [staff members] tackle[d] him, and he [was] thrown to the floor again.” The staff members used their strength and body weight to pin Jonathan, face-down, to the floor.
Children with disabilities need protection, not punishment. Yet corporal punishment is legal in 19 states. Even in those that that outlaw it, children with disabilities are bullied at shockingly high rates, targeted because they're vulnerable and different.
What child wants to go to school and learn when they're afraid of such violence? The Society for Adolescent Medicine has documented serious medical consequences resulting from corporal punishment, including severe muscle injury, extensive blood clotting (hematomas), whiplash damage, and hemorrhaging.
Corporal punishment creates a violent, degrading school environment in which all students -- and particularly students with disabilities -- may struggle to succeed. Research indicates that corporal punishment is rarely effective in teaching students to refrain from violent behavior, and that it causes students to become disengaged and reluctant to learn. And there are positive, nonviolent approaches to school discipline that have been proven to lead to safe environments in which children can learn – school districts throughout the country are using these methods successfully.
Two new developments in Washington this month promise hope. First, the US Civil Rights Commission just released a report urging the Departments of Justice and Education to pay more attention to violence against students with disabilities, emphasizing that this is a form of discrimination prohibited under federal law. It's no surprise that this report confirms that violence in schools -- in this case, peer-to-peer bullying -- is especially harmful for children with disabilities, who already face huge obstacles to learning.
Second, the Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act (ECPSA) was re-introduced in Congress on September 22. This bill would prohibit school personnel from striking children in their care. This would be no small change. More than 200,000 children are hit each school year, according to US Department of Justice data. These numbers probably undercount the actual rate of physical discipline, since not all instances are reported or recorded. Children with disabilities, punished at higher rates, would especially benefit.
Children with disabilities deserve inclusive appropriate education – and that does not include corporal punishment, which can actually worsen children’s disabilities. Landon’s grandmother knew that paddling was harmful for children with autism, and she tried to stop the school from doing it. She told me, "When a child with autism has something like that happen, they don’t forget it. It’s always fresh in their minds.” Ultimately, Landon’s grandmother withdrew him from school, fearing for his physical safety and mental health.
October marks the 5th anniversary of a major UN study combating violence against children worldwide – a reminder that the US has been and should remain at the forefront of children’s rights. Ending corporal punishment would show our continuing leadership.
We need to do more to eliminate the barriers that stop our children with disabilities from getting the education they deserve. Children need supportive, safe environments with positive behavior techniques, not schools where they're afraid of violence.
Every member of Congress who cares about children should support the legislation to end corporal punishment. Let's make schools safe for everyone, so that every child gets the chance to succeed.
Alice Farmer is a researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of Impairing Education: Corporal Punishment of Children with Disabilities in US Schools.