ACLU: Teachers abuse kids with disabilities

Unsettling evidence suggests that corporal punishment policies are targeting the most vulnerable children.

By GreatSchools Staff

Landon K., an autistic 6-year-old, was a first-grader in Mississippi when an assistant principal administered an approved punishment: striking the child on his bottom with an inch-thick paddle.

The incident terrified the child, causing him to lose control. "He was screaming and hollering," Landon's grandmother Jacquelyn K. later told the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "It just devastated him."

Landon was so upset by the paddling he had to be sedated by ambulance workers.

Sound like one of those rare cases of abuse that grab headlines but are basically unprecedented? Unfortunately, the facts are a little more disturbing.

It's well documented that children with disabilities are at risk for bullying by other students. But it's not just kids who can be cruel. Teachers and administrators also disproportionately single out disabled students for violent punishment in the name of discipline.

Landon is just one of the tens of thousands of children with disabilities who are paddled at school in the United States every year, according to a new report by the ACLU. "Impairing Education: Corporal Punishment of Students With Disabilities in U.S. Public Schools" (pdf) found that students with disabilities are more likely to be paddled than others and that some children are hit for exhibiting behaviors directly resulting from their disabilities.

Corporal punishment in our schools

Questionable reprimanding of students with disabilities is hardly limited to paddling. According to the report, they have been hit with rulers, grabbed with force enough to bruise, pinched, struck, and thrown to the floor — all by teachers and administrators. And the ACLU isn’t the only one raising the alarm about the issue: so is the federal government. An explosive report (pdf) issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in May 2009 documented hundreds of cases of abuse and even death resulting from restraint and seclusion used in public and private schools and treatment centers over the past 20 years. Almost all those cases involved children with disabilities.

Among the horrors the GAO report uncovered was the case of a 14-year-old boy with post-traumatic stress syndrome in Texas who died when a 230-pound teacher placed the child face-down on the floor and lay on top of him. The teacher was punishing the 129-pound student for not staying seated in class. While the teen's death was ruled a homicide, a grand jury did not indict the teacher, who is currently teaching in Virginia.

Only 15 states currently have policies on when and how restraint and seclusion can be used in school — that leaves 35 where it’s up to the teacher’s discretion (and potential misjudgment). But in the wake of the GAO report, in August Secretary of Education Arne Duncan asked all state school chiefs to submit their policies on restraint and seclusion. As a result many states have formed task forces to create new policies.

The battle over paddling

"Restraint should only be used when a child is a danger to himself or others rather than used to punish or for compliance," says Nadine Block, a former school psychologist who is now serving on a task force developing such a policy for Ohio schools. Teachers and administrators should also be trained on how to safely restrain children, she argues.

But even if all states clarify their policies on restraining students, it won’t help children like Landon who are paddled (or, in the vernacular of some administrators, “popped”) by their teachers. Currently, 20 states — from Idaho to North Carolina — still permit corporal punishment in schools. According to the Center for Effective Discipline , an advocacy group working to eliminate paddling in schools, 223,190 children were hit during the 2006-2007 school year, with certain states turning to the paddle more often than others. Three-quarters of the paddling incidents reported to federal officials occur in just five states: Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, and Georgia. In Mississippi, some 7.5% of students were hit; in Arkansas 4.7%. Since the early eighties, the frequency and prevalence of corporal punishment in U.S. schools has been steadily dropping.

Disproportionately singled out

While students with disabilities make up just 14% of the nation's student population, they represent about 19% of the students who suffer such corporal punishment, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education.

In some states, students with disabilities are far more likely to be on the receiving end of the stick than their peers; Tennessee students with disabilities are spanked at more than twice the rate of the broader student population.

Children diagnosed with autism, Asperger's syndrome, or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder are the most likely to receive such physical discipline from teachers and school officials, according to a new report (pdf) from the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, an advocacy group for special education students.

Why? "Their behaviors are more challenging," explains Block, who is also the executive director of the Center for Effective Discipline. "They're more difficult to work with in many cases. Over the years, more of those kids are in regular classrooms, and many teachers lack training in how to deal with them."

Long-term effects

Being paddled, much less physically restrained or locked in a room alone for hours, can change how a student feels about his or her education. After being paddled, Landon was terrified to go to school.

"The next day I tried to take him to school, but I couldn't even get him out of the house," says his grandmother. "We carried him out of the house; he was screaming. We got him to school but had to bring him back home."

According to experts, long-standing fears are an all too common reaction. "Children are afraid to go to school when they've been paddled," says Block."It sets up an adversarial and alienating relationship for the child."

Eventually, Landon’s grandmother withdrew the traumatized boy from school, fearing for his physical and mental health, despite threats from truant officers that she could go to jail.

"If I felt he would have been safe in school, he would have been there. I'm sure they would have paddled him again. I don't trust them," she says. "And the sad thing about it — he can learn. He can learn."