LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Under the dome of Kentucky’s Capitol Rotunda, Alex Young unfolded his notes and stepped to the podium.
The day before, the 13-year-old had rehearsed over and over his short speech — the one he hoped would rally support for the bill he wrote with his classmates, banning teachers from paddling students. But he was still a little nervous on the car ride from Louisville. He’d never spoken at the Capitol, and time was running out in the 2017 legislative session.
His voice echoed through the marble hall as he rattled off statutory definitions, glancing occasionally at his written remarks denouncing what he saw as an outdated practice. Like an untested politician, he gripped the microphone in his right hand and gestured with his left.
“As students, the use of corporal punishment scares us,” Alex said. “As Kentuckians, the use of corporal punishment embarrasses us.”
Kentucky’s Republicans and Democrats need to come together, the now-St. Agnes School eighth-grader implored, to end what he has called a “potential form of child abuse.”
What started as an after-school activity for Alex had become an opportunity — a responsibility — to help kids throughout Kentucky by changing the state’s corporal punishment laws. His classmates’ bill had passed through the Kentucky Youth Assembly, a mock government program, and transitioned to Frankfort.
If he and his classmates didn’t do something, he said, no one else would. He feared the idea would just die away.
Kentucky is one of 19 states where students can be corporally punished in schools.
Though many districts in the Commonwealth have taken it upon themselves to ban the practice, 25 school systems — largely concentrated in Eastern Kentucky — reported using corporal punishment more than 500 times during the 2015-16 school year, the most recent for which Kentucky Department of Education data are available.
In Kentucky schools, corporal punishment takes the form of paddling students on the butt, a Courier-Journal review of student handbooks and school board policies found. The review also found that in a handful of districts, parents must give permission for a school to corporally punish their children. But for the most part, consent is implied and parents must opt out if they don’t want their child paddled.
The percentage of students who are paddled is relatively low, the data show. About 4 percent of public school students attend a school where corporal punishment is used, although less than 1 percent of Kentucky students actually were paddled during the 2015-16 school year. Indiana also allows corporal punishment in schools, although the state does not keep data showing where and how often it is used.
Jefferson County Public Schools banned corporal punishment in 1990, as Kentucky school districts pushed to replace it with alternative methods of discipline. That same year, the state school board managed to abolish the practice — though only temporarily. A state subcommittee declared the ban invalid, and paddling students became permissible again in 1992.
The students’ bill filed last session was only the third attempt by lawmakers to abolish corporal punishment since the ban was lifted, and it all started last summer as legislation for the Kentucky Youth Assembly, a YMCA-sponsored program for students.
During lunch one day, Alex’s dad mentioned that kids could still be corporally punished in school. Alex didn’t believe him, so he Googled it.
“The idea was kind of surreal, that kids were still being hit with paddles in school,” he said.
His classmates at St. Agnes were equally shocked. They had heard about kids being spanked at home, but never at school. So Alex and several classmates — Charlie Gardner, Emma Kate Watts-Roy and Elizabeth George — penned a bill for Kentucky Youth Assembly that would charge teachers who paddle students with a misdemeanor and subject them to consequences as severe as termination of employment.
Last December, the proposal went up against roughly 75 other bills during the annual Kentucky Youth Assembly meeting in Louisville.
After days of debate by student delegates, the bill abolishing corporal punishment in schools was signed into law by the governor, a high school freshman from Elizabethtown.
Winter break gave Alex the chance to reflect on the bill and the issue of corporal punishment. At St. Agnes, he said, he feels safe, like he can talk to teachers about issues he’s having. But that wouldn’t be the case if his teachers were allowed to paddle him.
We can’t just let kids continue to be in this position, he thought.
So, unbeknownst to his parents, Alex wrote a letter to his state representative, Jim Wayne, a Democrat, asking him to sponsor the bill in the General Assembly.
“He had asked his dad for a stamp, and his dad asked, ‘Well, what are you doing?’ ” recalled Laurie Young, his mother. “And that’s kind of where it went from there.”
Wayne, a psychotherapist who has worked with children and adolescents and believes corporal punishment is ineffective, began meeting with Alex and his classmates in January, and they made some changes to the Kentucky Youth Assembly bill. In February, at the tail end of the 2017 legislative session, Wayne, along with fellow Louisville Democrat Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, filed House Bill 393.
The bill died in committee but garnered attention on social media, exactly as Wayne and the students had hoped. Since then, the group has conducted hours of research and continued to meet at St. Agnes to strategize for the 2018 legislative session. Though the bill will use the same language as this year’s legislation, the students have been calling Republican lawmakers to secure a co-sponsor for what Alex calls a bipartisan bill.
The whole process has required frank discussions with young teenagers about “political reality,” said Wayne, who attends St. Agnes’ church. “It’s not always common sense in politics.”
If you invite a University of Louisville professor to testify before committee, you’re going to need to also invite an expert from the University of Kentucky, he has told them. This bill could take years to pass. And at the end of the day, even if your heart’s in the right place, some lawmakers still won’t support it if it doesn’t align with their party affiliation.
Indeed, some Kentucky lawmakers aren’t interested in changing the current laws.
“There was corporal punishment when I was going to school, and I’m not any worse the wear for it,” Senate Education Committee Chairman Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, said in a statement to the Courier-Journal. “I’m not a fan of changing the law unless it’s absolutely necessary. At this point, I don’t know that anybody has presented any overwhelming evidence that we need a change in the law.”
Requests for interviews with Wilson, as well as Rep. Bam Carney, chair of the House Education Committee, were not granted.
Some of the reactions Alex has gotten from lawmakers have been surprising. It was discouraging at first, he said, but he and his classmates have learned to just keep working. He thinks being kids pushing for change has probably both helped and hurt their cause.
On one hand, he feels like some lawmakers don’t take him seriously because he’s not old enough to vote. On the other hand, “it’s harder for adults to put themselves in the shoes of kids” who are being corporally punished.
“I think being students without a political agenda, it’s easier for us to see what’s right or wrong,” he said. “I think some of the legislators kind of get blinded and stuck in their chaotic world of politics.”
Corporal punishment continues to be used despite the fact that decades of research shows that it’s an ineffective way to discipline kids, said Elizabeth Gershoff, a faculty research associate at The University of Texas at Austin.
Though there hasn’t been much research on corporal punishment in schools, years of research exist on the effects physical punishment in general has on children. Almost all of it shows that spanking is linked to more long-term aggression, defiant behavior and mental health problems, she said.
“It’s really one of the most consistent things I’ve ever seen in research,” said Gershoff, who last year published an analysis of 50 years of studies about corporal punishment.
The handful of studies that specifically examine corporal punishment in schools suggest the practice doesn’t help children learn, either, she said. In a yet-to-be-published study, Gershoff asked recently graduated students who were corporally punished in school to recount their experiences. Two hundred young adult respondents indicated they had been paddled in school, and the message was pretty clear, she said — it was painful, humiliating and in many cases left the student injured. It didn’t help kids learn their lesson and could be linked to lower high school GPAs, she said.
The 351-student Fulton Independent School District, located in Western Kentucky, paddled 14 students during the 2015-16 school year — a higher percentage than any other district in the commonwealth, data show. The statistic is surprising, Superintendent Deanna Miller said, because “we hardly ever use corporal punishment.” When it is used, she said, it’s usually “an extreme case,” when all other disciplinary measures have been exhausted, she said.
At the beginning of each school year, parents are provided forms that allow them to opt out of corporal punishment for their child. Miller said there seems to be parental support for the practice because very few forms are returned.
But Miller declined to comment on the effectiveness of corporal punishment. The district keeps data on whether or not students repeated undesired behaviors after receiving corporal punishment for them, and Miller said she would have to review the figures.
Ultimately, Miller said, it’s the school board’s decision to allow corporal punishment in the district, and the members “feel strongly about that.” An attempt to reach Fulton Independent Board of Education President Debbie Vaughn through district staff was unsuccessful.
Gershoff said people continue to use corporal punishment because they think it works. Some legislators worry a ban on corporal punishment would cause an increase in delinquency. Gershoff has researched this too.
“In the states that banned corporal punishment over a 20-year period, did they see an increase in juvenile crime?” she asked. “It turns out, no. They didn’t. Now, they didn’t see a decrease either, but they didn’t see an increase.”
Kentucky isn’t the only place where students are pushing for the practice to be abolished. In Alabama — where studies show more than half of schools have used corporal punishment in recent years — a group of students has also mobilized.
In part, it’s wonderful that students are involved, Gershoff said, but it’s also “totally sad that middle school students have to do this.”
She added: “I just don’t think adults who are making these decisions think about the fact that it physically hurts and it’s humiliating.”
After his speech in the Capitol’s rotunda, Alex greeted supporters, did his first-ever TV interview and sat in on a committee meeting about Real ID legislation. He scarfed down a cheeseburger in the Capitol’s cafeteria before taking the bus back to St. Agnes, just in time for gym class.
The kids were supposed to be playing basketball, but instead, Alex and his classmates just talked about his visit to the Capitol. Teachers wanted the details: How did it go? Who was there?
For Alex, the entire experience has been a lesson about the real world — about effecting change and trying to get stuff done. The world is a messy place. Instead of running away from it, people need to step up and say, “I want to fix this,” he said.
When he thinks about the immediate future, he’s uncertain how long he’ll be able to stick with the bill. He wants to see what happens in the coming legislative session and then go from there.
But in the long term, he has an idea of what’s to come. He might like to run for office someday.
Information from: The Courier-Journal, http://www.courier-journal.com