Wednesday, June 10, 2009

PA: Corporal punishment of special education students crosses the line to child abuse

By Kindall Nelson
Chicago Special Education Examiner

Mentions of being paddled at school or having a corporal punishment policy tend to conjure up mental images of one room school-houses and boys in suspenders who were caught putting a frog in the lunch pail of a little girl with pigtails.

In fact, many parents are confounded to find out that their state actually allows children in public schools to be spanked by teachers and administrators. While Illinois has outlawed corporal punishment since 1993, there are still 22 states that still permit paddling, with only three have laws that restrict that use (AZ, OH, UT). The other eighteen are law-less when it comes to applying a paddle to the rear end of a child who is misbehaving. These include Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.

Not every school in these states spank children as a form of punishment. And those that do often have policies and guidelines in place so that parents are notified of an issue and given the option of the corporal punishment. Still, with the large number of states participating, the actual number of reported spankings comes to less than 1% of students being spanked nationwide.

As has been seen in schools across the country however, sometimes administrators and teachers don't always follow the proper procedures, especially when it comes to children in special education programs. This can cause major problems.

Physical punishment is never appropriate for children with special needs. A teacher or administrator can never know to what extent a spanking or paddling is detrimental to a special needs child. Children with any ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) often perceive pain differently than the average child. The spanking of a child with ASD can cause them confusion, or reinforce within the child the belief that physical intimidation is the way to get what they want. It can also reinforce self-injuring behaviors that some ASD children deal with.

When it comes to a child with medical diagnoses, physical discipline by anyone other than a parent who knows the illness intricately put the child at high risk for side effects. For example, a child with a disorder that affects the spine may look average to the naked eye, but a paddle to that same child's rear end can cause back problems that are not worth risk or the possible benefit. Or, imagine a child with a blood-clotting disorder receiving even a light spanking only to come home with severe bruising due to his or her illness.

One argument against any type of corporal punishment in school is that undiagnosed special needs children are at a higher risk for being exposed to inappropriate or over use of physical punishment. When a child who is mildly autistic had not been diagnosed as such, their reactions to other types of behavior modifications will likely be unusual. As any parent knows, having a punishment met with laughter, or worse, being ignored completely can cause adult tempers to flare leading to higher incidences of paddling and a higher possibility for crossing the line to abuse.

Louisiana currently has a bill banning corporal punishment up for debate. House Bill 571, by Rep. Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport, calls for the practice of corporal punishment to become illegal beginning next school year. She has been making headlines lately with her claims that the bill has been virtually ignored several times and is not getting the attention it deserves. The House's session is drawing to a close and there is only one more chance for it to be heard.

 Some are calling for amendments that continue to allow corporal punishment but require more strict reporting and monitoring of such incidents. Norton says that this is not adequate and asks that, at the very least, an amendment be filed to exempt special needs children from corporal punishment in Louisiana, saying "You should at least exempt children with autism and disabilities. I can’t see how a person could paddle someone with autism and other disabilities."

Whether one believes that corporal punishment at school is acceptable or not, there is no doubt that making sure our special education students are not subjected to this type of discipline is an important matter.

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