Rethinking Discipline

Federal officials want corporal punishment – rare but legal in Colorado schools – off the books

PHOTO: EWA/Katherine Taylor

U.S. Education Secretary John King on Tuesday urged Colorado and 21 other states to stop allowing corporal punishment in schools, a practice he called “harmful, ineffective, and often disproportionately applied to students of color and students with disabilities.”

The nation’s education chief instead advocated the use of disciplinary measures that create a positive school climate and promote nonviolent techniques for conflict resolution.

King outlined his concerns in a letter to the governors and education chiefs of states that allow disciplinary techniques such as paddling or spanking.

“… The very acts of corporal punishment that are permissible when applied to children in schools under some state laws would be prohibited as criminal assault or battery when applied to adults in the community in those very same states,” King wrote in his letter.

Corporal punishment is defined as intentionally inflicting pain to punish a child or in an attempt to change behavior. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that the practice does not violate constitutional rights.

Fifteen states, most of which are in the South, have policies allowing corporal punishment in public schools. Colorado is one of seven states that lacks a policy banning corporal punishment.

Colorado law requires districts to have clear policies on the use of physical force in dealing with disruptive students and states that discipline codes can’t conflict with child abuse rules.

If the state did ban corporal punishment, it would likely have to come in the form of legislation. Jeremy Meyer, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Education, said if the State Board of Education created such a policy, it would probably be seen as overreach and be flagged by the state’s Office of Legislative Legal Services.

The use of corporal punishment is rare in Colorado, according to the most recent federal data. In 2011-12, it was used on 485 students in the state, or about .05 percent of all Colorado students.

In contrast, the practice was used on tens of thousands of students in states such as Mississippi, Texas and Alabama, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Data collected by that office shows a racial gap in how corporal punishment is dispensed. Nationally, black boys are 1.8 times as likely as white boys, and black girls are 2.9 times as likely as white girls, to receive the disciplinary measure.

And in nearly all of the states where the practice is permitted, students with disabilities were subjected to corporal punishment at higher rates than students without disabilities. Boys are also disproportionately impacted.

“These data and disparities shock the conscience,” King wrote.

King cited myriad research showing that physical punishment actually exacerbates poor behavior, rather than correcting it. Students who receive corporal punishment are more likely to be depressed or show antisocial behavior as adults.

One of the alternatives King proposed is restorative justice, which aims to address the root causes of disagreements and misbehavior through conversation rather than punishment. The practice has already gained steam in numerous Colorado schools, including Denver Public Schools and Aurora Public Schools.

“The most frequently cited rationale (for corporal punishment) tends to be tradition and concern about how schools can ensure safe and orderly environments,” he told reporters in a briefing on Monday. “… (But) there are smarter ways to achieve safe and supportive environments.”

King’s letter comes at a time when Colorado is grappling with its approach to disciplining preschoolers and early elementary students. Over the past two years, there’s been a statewide push to reduce suspensions and expulsions of young children, a practice that disproportionately affects boys of color. It’s likely there will be legislation on the topic during the 2017 session.

Disparities in discipline have been a rallying cry for the Obama administration, which has launched several initiatives aimed at decreasing racial disparities and increasing the use of alternatives to suspension, expulsion and corporal punishment.

It’s unclear how the administration of President-elect Donald Trump will approach the matter, but the head of the nation’s largest teachers union urged continued advocacy against corporal punishment, even as Obama’s administration ends.

“It does not matter who the secretary of education is. … This is a moral matter,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “I don’t care if you are a Republican or a Democrat, a conservative or a progressive. …There is no earthly justification for paddling, caning or otherwise physically harming students in schools.”

seizing the moment

On first day for most Denver schools, gubernatorial candidate Michael Johnston calls for better school funding

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston's children listen to him announce his gubernatorial bid. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado Democratic gubernatorial candidate Michael Johnston sent his son Emmett back to school Monday — and sent a message to voters at the same time about one of his longtime causes.

On the first day of school for most Denver students, Johnston recorded a video of his son carting off two large cardboard boxes full of supplies. In the video posted to Twitter, the former state senator called it another example of how Colorado is shortchanging its public schools.  

“People often ask what does it mean to have cuts to the statewide budget to education,” he said.  “Well it means a lot of those bills get passed on to parents and to kids who have to bring their own paper towels, their own wipes, their own crayons, their own boxes.”

Johnston, a national figure in the education reform movement, led an unsuccessful push to increase taxes for schools in 2013.

“We count ourselves lucky,” Johnston said in the video, adding that knows many families in Denver often feel the pinch of buying new school supplies and fees. “We think the state has an obligation to do better.”

Though the governor’s race is in its early stages, back-to-school season is a logical time for candidates to take out education positions. Earlier Monday, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who is also running, released an online ad spotlighting his pledge to expand full-day kindergarten and preschool.

sending a message

Memphis school board leader wants to declare that ‘all are welcome here’

PHOTO: Marcus Villa/Latino Memphis
Immigrant students display their career aspirations during a visit to the State Capitol in March to support an unsuccessful bill that would have extended in-state tuition to them.

A school board member wants Shelby County Schools to send a unified message to immigrant students and parents: “You are safe in our schools.”

Teresa Jones will ask the board Tuesday to officially go on the record about protections for undocumented students in the wake of this summer’s federal immigration arrests in Memphis by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

“There are speculations among parents of, ‘Should I send my child to school?’” she said Monday about the impetus for her proposal. “I want the board to take a formal stand.” 

The resolution backs up the district’s current policy of protecting student privacy and restricting the release of confidential information about immigration status to immigration enforcement agencies.

It also asks the superintendent to elevate partnerships with community-based organizations aimed at supporting families impacted by immigration raids.

If the resolution is approved, Shelby County’s school board would join elected school officials across the nation who have spoken out about President Donald Trump’s crackdown on people who have entered the United States illegally. Last fall after Trump’s election, Nashville school board members took a similar stand.

Memphis school officials sought to assure parents of the district’s policy earlier this month when the new school year opened.

Shelby County is now home to approximately 57,000 Hispanics, and 14 percent of the district’s student population is Hispanic.

Teresa Jones

The resolution by Jones, who is an attorney, cites the 1982 Texas court case Plyler v. Doe, which established that a public school district cannot deny children access to education based on their immigration status.

She said a school board vote would send a strong message to Shelby County and across the nation.

“An individual speaking is just opinion,” Jones said. “But when we have a resolution, that speaks for the entire board. It’s a different level of … commitment to our students.”

Kevin Woods, another board member, said he’ll back the position wholeheartedly.

It makes “a statement loud and clear to families of our immigrant population that they are welcome at our schools, we want them there and they are members of our communities,” he said.