Alex Young, Representative Steve Riley, and Nellie Ellis at the House Education Committee meeting on February 4, 2020

Kentucky students need learning environments that are safe and nurturing. Across Kentucky, school districts are shifting their focus to how to best serve children who’ve experienced trauma, but several districts still allow the use of corporal punishment, or physical force, as a form of discipline. House Bill 22, sponsored by Representative Steve Riley, seeks to eliminate the use of corporal punishment in all public schools.

This week, the House Education Committee heard testimony on House Bill 22 and voted unanimously in support — it now moves to the Kentucky House for a vote. Read a statement from Terry Brooks and stay-up-to-date on progress of this measure on our Bill Tracker.

The House Education Committee heard from young leaders — Alex Young of Jefferson County and Nellie Ellis of Whitley County — as well as Carla Hay, a pediatric forensic nurse at the University of Kentucky.

Testimony from Nellie Ellis, who is a high school senior from Whitley County and the lead Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children youth ambassador: 

I believe there’s something special about my role here today because I’m still considered a youth myself. I attend Whitley County high school in southeastern Kentucky and am one of the small number of school districts that allow for corporal punishment as a consequence of actions.

I want to highlight that point, “as a consequences of actions.” As advocates, we understand that corporal punishment is seen as something that reprimands students’ negative behavior with the intention that the student won’t display that behavior again, and we acknowledge that many who choose to use corporal punishment do care about their students’ well-being.

But, it’s also our role as advocates to shed light on the issues that corporal punishment creates for the students it’s employed on.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau “Child Maltreatment 2018” report released in January showed us that our commonwealth had more than 23,000 victims of child maltreatment. Perhaps even more notable is that the same report shows Kentucky has the highest child maltreatment rate in the nation — more than double the national rate.

Data from the Kentucky Department of Education shows there were 284 incidences of corporal punishment in the 2018-19 school year – used in only 13 districts. Over half of those were in elementary school settings.

What troubles us is the narrative created by combining those pieces of data.

Knowing that some of our smallest Kentuckians are the majority of these cases is cause for concern because it’s at this age that their minds are like sponges. Corporal punishment reinforces using physical aggression as a way to address unwanted behavior and what these minds are soaking-in is the fact that you can respond to other people’s negative behaviors by using physical force

And as Kentucky Youth Advocates has so eloquently put it, “For children in schools that use corporal punishment, the classroom can become an environment that instills fear, anxiety, and distrust.” It’s also important to note that 26% of kids in Kentucky have experienced at least two adverse childhood experiences. As a state, we can’t keep physically punishing children when we don’t know what other traumas they carry with them to school each day.

Now, as advocates we are not asking for the nonconstructive behavior of a child to go unchecked. Instead, we’re asking that districts and their schools model after the good work of 2019’s Senate Bill 1 — the School Safety and Resiliency Act — which promotes schools that are trauma-informed and aware of the mental health needs of children.

Each year, more than 80% of Kentucky school districts do NOT employ corporal punishment and can be models of support as to what alternative consequences can be utilized to effectively encourage children to modify and change their behavior. As a state, we need a blanket statement, a commitment, to not put the mental and physical health of a child at risk by allowing the option of corporal punishment in schools. Children need schools to be safe and nurturing learning environments that promote their overall growth, not only academically, but as individuals. If that isn’t present, students are not able to excel. In fact, research shows that the negative impacts of corporal punishment on a child can result in long-term consequences, such as aggression and delinquency, along with poor educational outcomes, such as dropping out.

It’s vitally important that we eliminate the use of corporal punishment in schools so that Kentucky’s schools can be the best place to be a kid.

Testimony from Carla Hay, who is a Pediatric Forensic Nurse at the University of Kentucky and a member of the Kosair Charities Face It Movement:

As a Pediatric Forensic Nurse, I assess children for concerns of maltreatment including abuse and neglect and collaborate with an internal team and external community partners as appropriate.

Representative Riley, Carla Hay, Alex Young, and Nellie Ellis testifying on House Bill 22 before the House Education Committee on February 4, 2020

My team and I have been involved in the treatment of a child whose principal utilized corporal punishment. The child was approximately 7 years old and struck multiple times, resulting in a significant amount of bruising.

When we hear about the number of incidences of corporal punishment usage in schools, what is often lost or forgotten are the actual children who make up those numbers. School personnel are not trained on how to administer corporal punishment. Moreover, the emotional and physical trauma history of the child is not always fully known or recognized and utilization of corporal punishment could exacerbate underlying issues.

Kentucky has the highest rate of abuse and neglect in the country, and what we know is that consistent and prolonged exposure to trauma can negatively impact healthy brain development and over-activate a child’s fight-or-flight response. This can create long-term learning and behavioral issues and for children who attend schools where corporal punishment is utilized, undermine their feeling of safety.

Research has also shown that youth with disabilities – emotional, cognitive, or physical – are more likely than their peers without disabilities to be subjected to corporal punishment in schools. This is especially problematic when we consider that some behaviors that may be viewed as disruptive in a classroom such as the inability to sit still or listen may lead to corporal punishment, but these behaviors are actually endemic to their disability.

Testimony from Alex Young, who is a high school senior from Jefferson County: 

I am an advocate who has worked collaboratively with other youth, professional experts, and state leaders throughout our commonwealth on this effort for the past four years. Since I was able to discuss the matter before this committee last session, I will be brief in my testimony.

The language included in this bill more clearly defines corporal punishment and what should no longer be allowable in schools.  Kentucky is one of nineteen states that currently allows the use of corporal punishment in schools. According to data from the Kentucky Department Of Education, corporal punishment was used 284 times across 13 school districts in the Commonwealth in the 2018-2019 school year.

The language in KRS 503.110 and other related statutes is extremely vague and allows for the conditions of use, along with the appropriate use, to be a matter of opinion. Seeing that the opinion of a teacher or administrator might differ with that of a student or parent, corporal punishment opens the door to a significant potentiality of lawsuits. Corporal punishment in schools is a liability for teachers, administrators, superintendents, and school board members. This liability will always exist when students are being physically and deliberately harmed, regardless of any attempt at oversight or regulation.

The use of corporal punishment risks something much greater than potential liability, however, it risks the sense of security every student should have when in school. The safety of students must always come first in Kentucky schools, and intentionally harming students contradicts the very definition of safety. By physically punishing students, we create an environment where physical harm and compromising trust is acceptable.

Every risk that we associate with corporal punishment indicates that Kentucky desperately needs change.

Stay up-to-date on the progress of House Bill 22 on our Bill Tracker.