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Can My Child’s School Use Corporal Punishment on my Disabled Child?

The use of corporal punishment is a controversial topic, especially when it involves students with disabilities. Surprisingly, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does not prohibit corporal punishment for students with disabilities. However, the U.S. Department of Education provides guidance to public schools to provide effective educational services to students with disabilities. The Department of Education Office for Civil Rights released its most comprehensive guidance to promote supportive and effective disciplinary measures. The Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, stresses that it helps “ensure that students with disabilities are treated fairly and have access to supports and services to meet their needs – including their disability-based behavior.”

The IDEA defines corporal punishment as paddling, spanking, or other forms of physical punishment imposed on a student. Corporal punishment is currently legal in 19 states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming.

According to a recent U.S. Commission on Civil Right's study, students with disabilities receive corporal punishment at disproportionately high rates. Not surprisingly, many states still use corporal punishment even when it’s banned. For example, Louisiana banned using corporal punishment on children with special needs in 2017, but school districts continue to use corporal punishment on children with disabilities as recently as 2021. I grew up in Louisiana and received corporal punishment when I was in middle school. In fact, I put socks in my jean pockets to reduce the pain. I received an extra paddling when the principal easily saw my socks. It's unacceptable that children with special needs are being punished with corporal punishment when it is banned.

The Impact of Corporal Punishment on Students with Disabilities

The use of corporal punishment on students with disabilities has many unintended consequences. For example, studies show that students with disabilities are more likely to receive corporal punishment. Students with disabilities are frequently disciplined in a discriminatory way, with consequences that are more severe than for others exhibiting similar behaviors. These studies also show a significant racial disparity in corporal punishment. 

According to the American Psychological Association, corporal punishment does not reduce inappropriate behavior, and it can have severe negative impacts on students with disabilities. It is an ineffective strategy to address problematic student behavior especially when students are punished for behaviors related to their disabilities.

Punishment can lead to more aggression, rage, hostility, depression, problems with self-esteem, and it can lead to long-term mental health issues. It can also lead to regression in developmental terms, particularly for children with autism leading to self-injurious behavior, becoming more aggressive and lasting mental trauma. Finally, it can make students withdraw and unwilling to return to school.

There are more effective nonpunitive ways to target student misbehavior. For example, many schools have implemented restorative justice. Restorative justice shifts the focus of discipline from punishment to learning.

Can I Opt Out of Corporal Punishment?

If you live in a state where corporate punishment is legal, contact your child’s school district and opt out and withdraw your permission for corporal punishment. Ask your child's school what forms of punishment are used at school. Ask your child's school to inform you any time your child is disciplined. This is important, especially if your child is nonverbal because your child won't be able to tell you when they are disciplined. You may not be told if you don't explicitly ask your child's school to be informed when punishment is used.

Don't let your school make you choose between corporal punishment and out-of-school suspension. Tell your child's school that you do not agree to out-of-school suspension or other punitive disciplinary measures without a manifestation determination review.

Read and become familiar with your child’s school’s code of conduct. You can help your child understand the code of conduct and help them understand the expectations and consequences involved with violating the code of conduct. Then, talk to your child’s IEP team. You know your child best. You can get input from your child’s therapist or mental health care provider to provide the school with alternative ways to help your child when they have behavioral issues or problems.

What Can I Suggest to My Child's School?

The IDEA requires public schools to make reasonable accommodations for behavioral needs and modify discipline policies for children with disabilities. If your child doesn’t have a functional behavioral assessment or behavior intervention plan, ask your child’s IEP team to conduct a functional behavioral assessment.

If your child has behavioral-based behavior, request your child's school to implement a behavior intervention plan for your child. A behavior intervention plan can help provide your child’s teachers with alternative things such as taking a break, giving them time to cool down, stand up or walk around the classroom. Your child’s BIP will identify behavioral supports to help reduce and replace your child’s behaviors that interfere with their learning. Your child's BIP gives your child's teachers helpful replacement behaviors to teach your child appropriate behaviors.

Finally, reach out to your state's parent training and information center. You can talk to other parents who have been in your shoes. You know your child best. Don't be afraid and don't ever apologize for advocating for your child. They need you to be their advocate, especially if they are unable to advocate for themselves.

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