On the heels of a national report that found states lagging in the area of student mental health, child advocates told members of a Congressional subcommittee yesterday that federal legislation is needed to protect students from “brutal” forms of harsh or physical punishment including paddling, seclusion and restraint.

Corporal punishment in the schools is the practice of inflicting physical pain as a means of discipline. It is banned by every major Western nation except the United States, where it remains legal at the state level in the public schools of 19 states. In the U.S., the punishment often means paddling students with a wooden board. 

Some 70,000 students in the U.S. –  including some preschoolers – were hit during the 2017 and 2018 academic year, according to the most recent federal data. 

“These numbers are and should be shocking. Not one child should be hit,” said Morgan Craven, who testified as national director of policy, advocacy and community engagement of the Intercultural Development Research Association in San Antonio, Texas. 

Craven was among a number of witnesses who appeared before the Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and Labor on February 16 to testify in favor of three House bills that would bar the use of corporal punishment, seclusion and restraints in schools nationwide and end federal funding for the presence of police officers in schools.

One of the bills, HR3836, the Protecting Our Students in Schools Act of 2021, would withhold federal funding to schools that refuse to stop engaging in corporal punishment against students. It also includes funds to train local education agencies in nonviolent ways to discipline students. 

Another, HR 3474, known as the Keeping All Students Safe Act, would prohibit schools from confining students alone in a room. It would also bar school personnel and officers from restraining children through medications, the use of straps or other physical restraints that can interfere with breathing. Disability rights activists say these techniques are used most often against students with disabilities.

Restraint, seclusion and fear

Maryland resident Guy Stephens said his son Cooper was physically restrained and secluded from others at age 6 and again at age 13 at his public school in Calvert County, Maryland. Cooper is on the autism spectrum but was not a danger to himself or others, Stephens testified.

“The last instance was particularly traumatic and left him afraid to return to school,” he told the committee. “Maryland law was not enough to save my son from a traumatic experience that will be with him for the rest of his life.” His experiences led him to found The Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint.

Other children with disabilities have fared even worse, Stephens said. He cited the cases of Cornelius Fredericks, a Michigan student who died in 2021 after being placed in a prone restraint at a Michigan residential treatment center, and Max Benson, a  13-year-old with autism who died in a private school in California in 2018, also after being placed in a prone restraint. 

“We’ve seen children and educators who have suffered from broken bones, head trauma, bruises, scratches and other injuries,” he said. “Proponents of restraint and seclusion say they feel these interventions are necessary to keep everyone safe. In truth, most injuries occur during restraint or seclusion events.” 

Kristen Harper of Child Trends, a nonprofit research center based in Bethesda, Maryland, said teachers and other school personnel need to remember that one in 500 U.S. children had lost a parent to COVID-19 and consider the impact these losses had on their emotional functioning and behavior. 

“Our narratives need to be about asking why,” she said, “and getting to the root challenges behind whatever behavior we’re seeing with a young person.”

Black children represent 15% of all students but 37% of those hit or paddled

morgan craven

Craven testified that Black students are twice as likely as their white peers to subjected to corporal punishment. Nationally, Black children represent 15% of students and 37% of students hit or paddled, according to Craven’s written testimony. Disabled students account for just 17% of the student population, but 21% of those who were physically punished.

In her home state of Texas, which is among the 10 states with the highest instances of corporal punishment, Craven said that Black boys and girls with disabilities were punished far more than Black children without disabilities and at higher rates than children of other races who have disabilities.

“Black students are not more likely than their peers to break school rules,” she said, but “educators and administrators are more likely to hit Black children than they are other students.”

The paddles used to hit children – typically 18 inches long and 4 inches across – “would be considered weapons in any other context.” Craven said. “Some have holes drilled in them to reduce wind resistance and allow for faster, harder hitting.” Students have been paddled for such infractions as being late to school, laughing inappropriately, violating the school dress code, or failing a test, she said.

Craven noted that many people, including families and policymakers, are unaware that public schools in their states are authorized to hit children as a form of punishment. “Our nation has a problem of violence against children perpetrated in schools and sanctioned by states,” she said.

One witness who opposed the bill was Max Eden, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C. He argued that banning the use of seclusion and restraint of students could endanger teachers by leaving them with no way of controlling the classroom.

“Congress should not seek new ways to impose its will on local school districts,” he said.

Last year Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts) and Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticutt) introduced a related bill, the Counseling not Criminalization Act. It prohibits federal funding to support the hiring and placement of police officers in schools. Instead, it would provide $5 billion in grants to help school districts replace police with counselors, social workers, and other mental health staff who have been trained to understand the roots of trauma and how to respond to it. 

“For too long the federal government has been complicit in subsidizing the criminalization and over-policing of our children,” Rep. Pressley concluded.

Type of work:

Laurie Udesky reports on mental health, social welfare, health equity and public policy issues from her home in the San Francisco Bay Area.