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Kentucky Board of Education limits corporal punishment in schools

Jess Clark

In an unanimous decision, the 11 voting members of the Kentucky Board of Education approved new regulations Wednesday limiting the use of corporal punishment in the state’s public schools.

Corporal punishment is legal in Kentucky public schools under state law. But the board, and the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) it directs, have been lobbying for decades to ban the practice. The new regulations, KDE staff say, are meant to reduce harm to students while the practice remains legal.

“We believe no form of corporal punishment at school is safe,” KDE’s Matthew Courtney told the board.

However, he said, “we believe that there are some forms of corporal punishment that are safer than others, and so we’ve sought to provide some guardrails to guide schools to a safer form of this practice.”

Kentucky Commissioner of Education Jason Glass welcomed the new restrictions on physical discipline.

“I’m on record saying I consider this a barbaric practice,” Glass said. “And I’m embarrassed it exists anywhere in the state of Kentucky.”

Perhaps most significantly, the new regulations prohibit the use of corporal punishment on some of the most vulnerable students: those with documented disabilities, houseless students and students in foster care.

National data show students with disabilities are disproportionately disciplined with corporal punishment. And KDE staff say houseless students and students in foster care are already more likely to have experienced trauma, which research shows can be exacerbated by corporal punishment.

Moreover, Courtney said, the policy is an attempt to bring districts more in line with the state’s trauma-informed discipline laws, which were part of the 2019 School Safety and Resiliency Act.

“There is a persistent rub between our work related to trauma-informed discipline and [corporal punishment laws],” Courtney said.

He pointed to a large body of research showing that corporal punishment is ineffective, can traumatize students, worsens relationships with adults and makes it harder for students to learn.

The policy had support from all members of the Local Superintendents Advisory Council, which includes Superintendent Thom Cochran of Johnson County Schools, one of the few remaining districts where the practice was used as of the 2018-2019 school year. That year, educators in Johnson County Schools used corporal punishment 3 times.

While legal statewide, the use of corporal punishment has dropped sharply over the last 10 years, from nearly 1,100 uses in 2011-2012, to 284 uses in 2018-2019—the last school year before the pandemic. In the 2019-2020 school year, which was interrupted by the pandemic in March, schools used corporal punishment 142 times according to an annual KDE report.

Most Kentucky school districts have local policies that prohibit the practice. According to KDE, 156 districts have policies that ban corporal punishment. Four districts have policies that allow the practice under certain guidelines, and 11 districts have no clear policy.

The new KDE guidelines will require all districts to have a policy on corporal punishment. If the policy is to allow the discipline, certain parameters must be in place, including:

  • Corporal punishment cannot be delivered with a dangerous instrument or deadly weapon.
  • Corporal punishment cannot be used on students with disabilities, students facing housing insecurity or students in foster care.
  • Schools must have the family’s written consent to use corporal punishment at the beginning of the school year.
  • Schools must contact the family and get verbal consent before corporal punishment is used.
  • Schools must try another form of discipline before they use corporal punishment.
  • Only a principal or assistant principal can deliver corporal punishment, and it must be done in the presence of at least one certified staff member who is the same gender as the student.
  • No staff member will be compelled to participate in or witness corporal punishment.
  • If corporal punishment is used, the school must give the student 30 minutes with a guidance counselor or other mental health practitioner by the end of the next school day.

The regulations have a public hearing in February before they become final. Board Chair Lu Young said the new rules are on track for implementation in fall 2022.

Young also said she’s aware of efforts in the General Assembly to fully outlaw the practice when lawmakers return in January. Republican Rep. Steve Riley of Glasgow sponsored a bill in 2020 to ban the practice. The measure passed the House but died in the Senate.

Jess Clark is WWNO's Education Desk reporter. Jess comes to the station after two years as Fletcher Fellow for Education Policy Reporting for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC (Chapel Hill). Her reporting has aired on national programs, including NPR's All Things Considered, Here & Now from WBUR, and NPR's Weekend Edition.
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