Colorado advocates want to send schools a message: It’s never OK to hit a kid

Colorado state Capitol building in Denver, Colorado, with the U.S. and state flags in front of a cloudy sky
Colorado lawmakers want to ban corporal punishment. (Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post)

Colorado would ban corporal punishment by schools and day care centers, if a bill proposed by two Democratic legislators becomes law. 

The state is one of 22 states that allows corporal punishment in education. 

It’s not clear how often it’s used —  the state doesn’t collect that data and federal student discipline records show no Colorado cases — but advocates for children with disabilities say they hear from parents who see bruises on their children’s arms, legs, and even faces.

The bill to ban it has the support of disability and mental health advocacy groups that want the state to send a clear message that it’s never OK to hit a child.

“Most people are surprised we still allow it,” said state Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat who is co-sponsoring the bill. “It’s not the right message we want to send to administrators and schools.”

House Bill 1191 would prohibit an employee or volunteer from using corporal punishment on a child in a public school, a state-licensed child care center, a family child care home, or a specialized group facility. The bill defines corporal punishment as “the willful infliction of, or willfully causing the infliction of, physical pain on a child.”

The bill would require school districts and the Department of Early Childhood to prohibit the practice. The bill passed the House Education Committee Thursday with a 8-2 vote.

The bill is also sponsored by state Rep. Regina English, a Colorado Springs Democrat. English also wanted an amendment to define corporal punishment in athletics, such as how far a coach could push a student during a workout. That amendment failed in committee.

State Rep. Rose Pugliese, a Colorado Springs Republican, said she supports the bill and want to work with English on the athletics definition and how to define emotional or psychological punishment.

English said the bill focuses on positive experiences for students and “we’re going to reshape amendments to make it fair for everyone.” 

Colorado doesn’t collect data on corporal punishment, according to the Colorado Department of Education. The federal Office for Civil Rights didn’t record any complaints from Colorado about corporal punishment of students in 2017-18, the most recent data available.

Nationwide, the Office for Civil Rights reports boys are about four times as likely as girls are to be punished with corporal punishment. Black students also receive corporal punishment at twice the rate of their peers. The majority of corporal punishment reports come from Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas, according to the federal office.

Emily Harvey, Disability Law Center attorney team leader, said students with disabilities are also at high risk. Her office regularly gets calls from parents about physical pain inflicted on their child, she said. Those incidents often aren’t investigated, she said. 

The bill makes a statement that physically hurting children, especially students with disabilities, in Colorado is unacceptable, she said.

The bill “is just one extremely small step towards creating more inclusive and welcoming, and therefore safer, schools in Colorado,” Harvey said.

This is at least the second effort by Colorado lawmakers to ban corporal punishment. In 2017, a bill cleared the House, but stalled in a Republican-controlled Senate. Republicans didn’t explain their vote.

At the time, sponsors and advocates couldn’t point to a single complaint about corporal punishment used in Colorado schools, a sticking point for some Senate Republicans. 

Advocates say this year’s bill is backed up by a body of research that physical discipline leads to a greater risk of health risks such as depression, antisocial behavior, and suicide. School corporal punishment also may cause more aggressive behavior or low self-esteem in students.

To address behavior, Colorado schools should strengthen their support for students, said Vincent Atchity, executive director of the advocacy group Mental Health Colorado.

As a good example, he pointed to the I Matter program, which can provide a student six free virtual counseling sessions. He is pushing for the state to provide mental health assessments and referrals for students in sixth and through 12th grade.

Fields said her bill would move Colorado away from violence against students and toward respect, she said.

Allowing school staff to hit students, she said, “is not appropriate when we have a nation and a state that’s dealing with an increase of violence and crime and where kids don’t feel safe in schools.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include discussions in the House Education Committee.

Jason Gonzales is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at jgonzales@chalkbeat.org.

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