FRANKFORT — Kentucky lawmakers are trying to remove the Commonwealth from a list of 19 states where corporal punishment is still legal.
On Tuesday, Kentucky’s House Education Committee passed House Bill 22. If passed into law, the bill would prohibit a person employed by a school district from using corporal physical discipline in Kentucky’s schools.
The legislative committee passed the bill after hearing from representatives from non-partisan lobbyist group Kentucky Youth Advocates.
One of those lobbying for House Bill 22 was Times-Tribune intern and Whitley County High School senior Nellie Ellis. Ellis said she is a Chief Blueprint for Kentucky Youth Advocates and as a result is given a list of policy priorities that the group tries to advocate for every year. She said that the group mainly focuses on those policies affecting Kentucky’s children and what would be most beneficial for them.
Currently, there are 17 school districts that permit corporal punishment in Kentucky. With information provided by the Kentucky Department of Education, Kids Count Data Center reported 284 incidents of corporal punishment in the 2018-19 school year. That number is down from 452 the previous year.
According to that same data, Bell County has had the most incidents of corporal punishment over the last three years. Bell County’s school district saw 100 cases of corporal punishment in 2016-17, 129 cases in 2017-18, and 77 cases last year.
Whitley County is the only school district in the Tri-County to have corporal punishment instances reported over the last three years. Whitley County had 20 incidents in 2016-17, four in 2018-19, and none last year.
Whitley County’s 2018-19 student handbook states the following under its corporal punishment section:
“Effective July 1, 1992, the Whitley County Board of Education has granted each school SBDM or Effective Schools Council the authority to determine the Corporal Punishment Policy of the school within the guidelines of the Kentucky State Department of Education and the Whitley County Board of Education.”
While some may be surprised by Whitley County’s stance on corporal punishment, Ellis says she’s been aware of it for some time.
“I knew it was a thing. At my elementary school, Oak Grove, I didn’t see it a lot, but I had heard about it,” she explained. “I think that some other elementary schools in the Whitley County School system used it kind of frequently when I was younger. I had one of my friends tell me that he knew of repeat offenders. That in itself shows you that it doesn’t work, if you have repeat offenders.”
Ellis says that she hasn’t heard about any of her classmates getting corporally punished at Whitley County High School.
“But it’s still an option,” she said. “That’s what we’re concerned about.”
Ellis began researching the bill once she was asked if she would be interested in testifying and lobbying for it in the state’s capital.
“It made me understand the reasoning behind it more,” Ellis said on her research of House Bill 22. “The reason why they really wanted to introduce this bill is because a report came out this year that showed that Kentucky had the highest child maltreatment rate in the nation and it’s more than double the national rate.”
The report in which Ellis is referring to is the “Child Maltreatment 2018” report conducted by the U.S. Department of Health in Human Services. The report states that in 2018, Kentucky had 23,752 child victims of abuse. Kentucky’s rate of 23.5 per 1,000 children is the highest in the country and is more than 2.5 times higher than the national average at 9.2 per 1,000 children.
“We’re concerned that these same kids, that are receiving that sort of treatment at home or just exposed to it, are also exposed to it at school,” said Ellis. “They have other traumas and we don’t know what they’re carrying with them to school each and everyday. We don’t want to add to that by using physical force, we want to avoid that whenever possible.”
This isn’t the first time Kentucky has led the nation in child maltreatment, with its rate of 22.2 per 1,000 children in 2017 being the highest that year.
This also isn’t the first time Kentucky lawmakers have pressed to pass litigation outlawing corporal punishment in Kentucky’s public schools. In 2017, State Rep. Jim Wayne (D) filed a similar bill, but it did not pass into law.
Last year, State Rep. Steve Riley (R) sponsored House Bill 202, which also called for the removal of corporal punishment from Kentucky’s schools. The bill was never passed, but Riley has reintroduced the bill as House Bill 22 and has gained more bi-partisan support among his fellow legislatures in the process.
Both versions of the bill define corporal punishment as “the deliberate infliction of severe physical pain on a student by any means intended to punish or discipline the student, including but not limited to paddling, striking, shaking, or spanking.” Both versions of the bill say corporal punishment does not include “spontaneous physical contact intended to protect a child from immediate danger.”
House Bill 22 also states that “Reasonable athletic and military training” also not be included in what defines corporal punishment.
Both bills state that “School district employees, nonfaculty coaches, and nonfaculty assistants as described in KRS 161.185, shall not use corporal punishment on any student.”