State report finds students with disabilities paddled at higher rate than peers

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After months of research and analysis, state researchers found children with disabilities across Tennessee are paddled at a higher rate than their peers, according to a report released Wednesday by the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury.

“I’ve put together what I consider to be an objective report of what is currently happening in the State of Tennessee,” author Lauren Spires said. “The General Assembly members can look at the report and the findings.”

The report, published by the Office of Research and Education Accountability, recommends several policy considerations, including further study of the issue and legislation that would put an end to the controversial practice.

” Students with disabilities received corporal punishment at a higher statewide rate than students without disabilities for two of the three most recent reporting years,” the report found. “The number of students with disabilities receiving corporal punishment declined from 2009-10 to 2013-14, but not as much as the decline for students without disabilities. There were about seven percent fewer students with disabilities who received corporal punishment in 2013-14 than in 2009-10, while the number of students without disabilities receiving corporal punishment declined by about 46 percent across the same time frame. Of the schools that used corporal punishment for students with and without disabilities, about 80 percent used corporal punishment at a higher rate for students with disabilities in all three reporting years.”

Spires said although there are several conclusions, the lack of detailed data shows a need for more research.

“It doesn’t break it down by their disability category, so when you look at the rate, we’re not able to tell you, is it students with autism that are getting corporal punishment? Is it somebody who is intellectually gifted?” she said.

Two members of the Senate Education Committee requested the review in July after our Community Watchdog investigation identified more than two dozen Northeast Tennessee schools in six districts that paddled students with disabilities at a higher rate than their classmates during two of the four previous school years.

“The numbers that came out were concerning to us,” Gov. Bill Haslam previously said after lawmakers called for the statewide review. “I don’t think anybody in Tennessee really is comfortable with the idea of corporal punishment for kids with disabilities in almost any circumstance.”

A handful of area school districts still rely on corporal punishment sparingly. Local school administrators previously defended the practice, saying administrators only paddle students after other discipline fails to work and in partnership with parents.

“If you are a student with a disability, without a disability, the parents are going to be part of that decision,” Washington County Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton previously said.

“In many of these situations this was probably asked for by the parent to be administered. That happens lots of times,” Greene County Director of Schools David McLain previously said.

Administrators added overall, the number of times corporal punishment is used locally is declining, but the state’s review shows statewide the decline is disproportionate.

“The rate of use for students without disabilities dropped each of the three years while the rate of use for students with disabilities remained relatively unchanged,” Spires said. “That’s probably the key finding.”

As a result of our findings, Sen. Rusty Crowe (R), District 3, filed legislation that he hopes will lead to further study of the issue. His legislation would require school districts across Tennessee to start reporting instances of corporal punishment involving children with special needs. Districts currently are only required to report that data to the federal government.

“Following up on your report, I want to see if our special needs kids are being treated somehow differently from a corporal punishment perspective than kids that are not special needs,” Sen. Crowe recently said.

As a result of this report, Sen. Crowe’s office said he now plans on amending his bill to require the mandatory reporting of even more detailed information, including the disability category of the students paddled and the reason for using that form of discipline in each instance.

Rep. Jason Powell, (D), District 53, is a co-sponsor of that bill. The state lawmaker from Nashville also filed legislation of his own that would ban the use of corporal punishment on students with disabilities. After hearing concerns from fellow lawmakers, he says he’s since amended the bill to allow parents to be a part of the final decision. 

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