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

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

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 in 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 defended the practice, saying administrators only paddle students after other discipline fails to work and in partnership with parents. They also said overall, the number of times corporal punishment is used is declining.

“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.

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 said.

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 part of the final decision.

Copyright WJHL 2018. All rights reserved.