Bill to ban corporal punishment fails

Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock)
Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock)

A bill that would have banned corporal punishment in public schools failed on a voice vote in Senate Education Committee Wednesday.

Corporal punishment "is the intentional infliction of pain or discomfort and/or the use of physical force upon a student with the intention of causing the student to experience bodily pain so as to correct or punish the student’s behavior," according to the National Association of School Psychologists.

Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), lead sponsor of Senate Bill 610, said that corporal punishment should be a parent's responsibility and that allowing corporal punishment in schools sends the wrong message to kids.

"It should be the mission of our schools, I think, to teach our kids ways of resolving conflict other than there having to be physical conflict," Elliott said in an interview.

During questions, Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) asked Elliott if she believed corporal punishment "never works."

"We can talk about my experiences with corporal punishment," Clark said. "I'll just say, I found them to be quite effective."

Clark relayed one experience he had in which a principal paddled his son in seventh grade for "horsing around in the football dressing room." The handbook said the school should suspend the boy for three days, but the principal opted to punish with the paddle instead.

"I got fire in my eyes, y'all have seen me that way, and I said, 'If you had suspended my seventh grader for three days for horsing around in the dressing room, I would have been mad.' So there are different value systems here," Clark said.

Elliott responded, "I think you were in that position because you've been forced into a false choice" between suspension or corporal punishment.

In a paper called "State Policies Addressing Child Abuse and Neglect," the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan nongovernmental organization that monitors and researchers state policies, wrote that, "Substantial research shows negative long-term outcomes for children who are disciplined through corporal punishment."

Former U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. sent a letter in 2016 to state leaders urging them to eliminate the use of corporal punishment.

Students of color are more likely to receive corporal punishment, 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," according to King's letter.

"These data and disparities shock the conscience," the letter read.

Johnny Key, state commissioner of education, said the Department of Education had a neutral position on the bill "because it's still a local control issue," but he said the department has been promoting positive alternatives, such as deescalation.

"I think that it's something that we can move away from and find better ways, more positive ways to have discipline."

Arkansas law explicitly allows school districts to include corporal punishment in their discipline policies. Many school districts allow parents to opt-out of corporal punishment for their child, according to Key.

A second bill dealing with school discipline passed in Senate Education Committee Wednesday. Senate Bill 609 would prevent public schools from suspending students in kindergarten through fifth grade unless the student poses a physical risk to him or herself or others, or causes a series disruption that cannot be addressed through other means.

Elliott was also the lead sponsor of that bill.   

"What that will do is that will force us as adults in essence to, quote unquote, be smarter than the kids, and figure out ways to deal with discipline other than from suspending them from schools," Elliott said. "That's the same principle I think we ought to apply to corporal punishment. As adults let's figure out ways to administer discipline other than there having to be physical contact between an adult and a kid."

Twenty-two states currently allow corporal punishment in schools. Fifteen states permit it by law. Seven states do not have laws that prohibit it.

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