OP-ED: Classrooms shouldn't be places of fear
This school year, we need to rethink discipline in the classroom, especially when it comes to children with disabilities.
The American Civil Liberties Union recently released disturbing footage of a third-grade student in Kenton County, Ky., shackled and crying in pain. The 8-year-old has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD, and a history of trauma. In the video, the student, who is 3 feet 6 inches tall and weighs just 52 pounds, is handcuffed by his biceps, forcing his arms behind his back. He is visibly distressed and in pain.
Under regulations in Kentucky, physical restraint is prohibited in schools unless "the student's behavior poses an imminent danger of physical harm to self or others," and guidance issued by Kentucky's Department of Education on the use of physical restraint confirms that under these regulations, mechanical restraints such as handcuffs are expressly prohibited.
There are multiple techniques for responding to problematic behavior that have been proven successful for children with developmental or psychosocial disabilities. These include changes to the school environment that encourage children's engagement in daily activities and decrease the likelihood of challenging behavior.
Corporal punishment in public schools is still widely practiced in 19 U.S. states. The United States is way behind on this issue. In fact, 124 nations have criminalized physical chastisement in public schools. Although more than half of the states in this country prohibit it, the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to impose constitutional restrictions on the practice of "reasonable" corporal punishment.
The term "reasonable" is contentious. The most common type of corporal punishment in the United States is paddling. Paddling is used to punish a range of behaviors from fighting to minor misdemeanors such as being late, going to the bathroom without permission or chewing gum. It usually results in bruising and stinging, but has been known to cause more serious injury.
Children with disabilities receive corporal punishment at a disproportionate rate to their peers, despite evidence that it can adversely affect their physical and psychological conditions. Statistics show that African-American children are also more likely to receive physical chastisement in school. These disparities violate children's right to nondiscrimination in access to education, making it harder for these children to succeed, and undermine the social fabric of schools.
Education leaders are responsible for creating safe and healthy school environments where children can learn. This is not achieved through violence and coercion. When violence is used to punish children, it affects the entire school environment, creating a culture of fear and intimidation.
The U.S. government should ban corporal punishment in all schools across the country. And restraints should never be used to punish children. Classrooms should be a safe space for children to learn, not places of fear.
— Shantha Rau Barriga is disability rights director at Human Rights Watch. She wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine.