Stop Beating Students with Disabilities in Schools

Listen to a podcast of ACLU attorneys Alice Farmer and Catherine Kim discuss corporal punishment of students with disabilities, and alternatives to this type of discipline.

(Originally published in Huffington Post.)

In the 2006 – 2007 school year, nearly quarter of a million school children were subjected to corporal punishment in public schools. Impairing Education, a report released yesterday by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, finds that students with disabilities — who have a right to appropriate, inclusive educational programs that give them the opportunity to thrive — are nonetheless subjected to this violent discipline at disproportionately high rates.

Corporal punishment — from paddling to beating to throwing children into walls or floors — is routine in public schools in many parts of the United States. Impairing Education documents many such cases. No student should be subjected to these abusive forms of discipline, but students with disabilities, who already face extra challenges, can be particularly vulnerable to physical or psychological harm from these punishments.

Anna M.’s son, who has autism, was seven years old when he was punished in school. She told me about an experience at his elementary school:

I’m in the front office ... They bring [my son] into the room. His nose is beet red. He lifts up his shirt sleeve, I get a glimpse of scratches all up his arm. I got overwhelmed, I couldn’t focus ... I wanted to get my son to the doctor. I get him home and I take off his clothes. He was marked, top of his arms, under his arms, down his torso. He had a busted lip, which I hadn’t noticed at first. He said, “they made me wash the blood off before I saw you.”

Corporal punishment causes pain, humiliation, and in some cases deep bruising or other serious injury; it also can have long-lasting psychological consequences. Students with disabilities may see their underlying conditions worsened as a result. Furthermore, it creates a violent, degrading school environment in which all students — and particularly students with disabilities — may struggle to succeed.


Anna M.’s son has changed after he was restrained and beaten. He now struggles with anger, has had nightmares, is reluctant to leave his mother’s side and fears running into the person that administered his punishment. Anna said, “I was afraid for his life, to be honest. He was 52 pounds, or maybe even less, at this point.”

The use of corporal punishment on children with disabilities violates the right to freedom from cruel, degrading treatment and violence guaranteed to them under international human rights law. Children with disabilities have the right to an inclusive education, yet corporal punishment impinges on this right and creates barriers to their success.

There are positive, nonviolent approaches to school discipline that have been proven to lead to safe environments in which children can learn. Positive behavioral supports teach children why what they did was wrong and gives them the tools necessary to improve their behavior. The staff in our schools must be trained on how to discipline children effectively and humanely.

No child should be hit, especially the most vulnerable.

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Appalling. Thanks for bringing this disgusting practice to light, ACLU


How can any adult sink so low as to beat up a 7 year old autistic child.

Dr. Craig Spink...

As a retired 30*-year veteran of publicly-funded education in Georgia, I must assert that I have never seen a special-needs child physically abused. On the other hand, I've seen a legion of kids, SpEd and regular Ed, denied reasonable educational opportunities as a consequence of the disruptions of instructional activities caused by a minority of their peers.

Theresa Edwards

ALICE- THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH. Maybe just maybe those in power who can stop this practice will listen. No Child should go through what my baby went through. I read the report to my children and they were so happy to know someone cares about what happened to their baby sister.


SHOCKING news headlines of injuries suffered by children abused by school employees in states where the practice is legal are all too common! Physical or Corporal Punishment is HEAVILY ASSOCIATED WITH THE PORNOGRAPHY INDUSTRY, just type corporal punishment or spanking into any internet search engine to verify. There is a PUBLICLY FUNDED CHARTER SCHOOL, the Memphis Academy of Health Sciences that made news headlines recently for disciplining Middle/High School students (girls too) during an assembly called "Chapel" where students are taken on a stage and hit with a wooden paddle by their 6'6'' former football player principal and/or have their hands whipped with leather straps IN FRONT OF ALL THE OTHER STUDENTS AS A DETERRENT TO PUBLICLY INDUCE SHAME/HUMILIATION AND FEAR AS AN INTIMIDATION TACTIC! The "Educators" and "Administrators" of this PUBLICLY FUNDED CHARTER SCHOOL state their "Discipline" practices are within Tennessee State Laws! U.S. Congress is currently holding hearings on Abusive and DEADLY (kids have died at the hands of government employees entrusted with their care and education in our tax payer funded schools) practices in SCHOOLS and must take immediate action to ABOLISH CORPORAL PUNISHMENT OF ALL CHILDREN IN ALL SCHOOLS! There is NO EXCUSE for any "Educator" to hit a child with a weapon/wooden paddle as PUNISHMENT when credible professional educators who have EARNED RESPECT effectively "DISCIPLINE" by teaching children with reasonable and fair consequences everyday in schools the 30 states where Corporal Punishment is ILLEGAL! State Departments of Education promote the EFFECTIVENESS and training for educators in NON-VIOLENT Discipline methods, such as Schoolwide Behavior Support Systems. Think about it, we teach children that hitting is not acceptable, but when an adult entrusted with their care and education hits them, they powerfully model physical assault/violence to our children as the acceptable means to solve problems. Children learn by example, what you do, not what you say. Children who are physically punished, like an animal, will become withdrawn, disengaged and fearful or mean, violent and retaliative at society. If you love your children, show them, tell them, support them, teach them, DO NOT HIT THEM! Our 3 children attend schools in an UNRESPONSIVE Paddling School District and overhear classmates at the Middle school receive paddlings in the hallway, administered in front of some sort of security cameras, then the paddled student must face classmates immediately following the paddling when they return to their seat, all with no parental consent or notification, as a knee-jerk reaction (not a last resort) for things like fooling around in class or not turning in homework. We do not hit our children and are strongly OPPOSED to their learning environment including teachers who takes wooden paddles with holes drilled into them out of their desk drawers to threaten students with physical harm to obtain obedience, where they overhear paddlings administered and witness paddled students return immediately to class. Their learning environment is full of fear/anxiety/dread and humiliation. My husband and I made a verbal and written presentation to our local school Board Members at their meeting in April 2008, during "National Child Abuse Prevention and Awareness Month" to demand they prohibit physical punishment of children in our schools, and to date, August 09, we have not received a response, no letter, no phone call, they have IGNORED us!

Julie Worley

U.S. Congress is currently holding hearings on Abusive and DEADLY practices in SCHOOLS and MUST ABOLISH Physical/Corporal Punishment of ALL CHILDREN IN ALL SCHOOLS, already ILLEGAL IN 30 STATES!

JJ Johnson

I worked as a Youth Division Aide, Teacher's Aide and hall monitor in my local school district and for the NYS Office of Children and Family Services. I am shocked to see that corporal punishment is legal anywhere and cannot understand why it would even be necessary in even the most violent cases.

I have had several types of restraint training for the various levels and age groups I have worked with. At NYS OCFS, I worked with teen aged youth who came from gangs and lived violent lives. Even in the most difficult situations, I never saw a need for corporal punishment and it was absolutely against the rules. Every restraint was reviewed and scrutinized from above.

I also worked with students at my local high school that were physically and mentally challenged. The last thing students or anyone with these impairments needs is to be paddled for their behavior. If the teacher's, aides and other faculty are not up to the challenge of working with students who have special needs, be they extreme or mild, they need to get a new career. They should know goin in that it's going to be difficult.

I've been hit, scratched, spit at and screamed at by out of control kids and never retaliated against them with any sort of violent act. Furthermore, violence against a child that is acting out will only escalate the situation. I went to Catholic school and I know what it's like to be at the bad end of a paddle and ruler. Those implements of mental destruction should be banned in schools everywhere and put in museums under the category of Tools for Torture. Get them out of schools along with any faculty that hasn't got the mental capacity to understand why it is wrong or the desire to solve problems with their brains. That is, after all, what got them their job in the first place, I hope.

JJ Johnson

I should add something to my previous comment, specifically about the use of restraint techniques. There are times when restraining a student is necessary. In NY, there are several criteria that must be met before one is allowed to physically restrain a person and it varied slightly from institution to institution that I worked in. Basically, the main reason to physically restrain a person is to prevent harm to the person that is out of control or others nearby.

As I have worked with children with Autism, I know that they can exhibit violent-like behavior that is not aimed at anyone, it is a response to a need for a particular type of stimulation. In cases that I have worked with, a physical restraint can be helpful because it provides the type of pressure that Autism creates the need for.

For whatever reason, physical pressure alleviates whatever the cause is. Depending on how severe the Autism is and how bad the episode has gotten before intervention takes place, the pressure restraint can be anywhere from a few minutes to around 20 minutes and is quite exhausting. But the main thing is, it is not violent. If someone is resorting to violence to resolve this behavior, is will never work and only escalate the behavior. Autism is so under-understood and a lot more training is needed because there is such a wide degree of Autism it is often misdiagnosed by experts.

With some of the children I worked with, their episodes were so bad they would dig and scratch themselves, kick themselves in the shins, bang their heads against the walls or floors and try to do the same to me for intervening. They often had bruises and scratches on their arms, legs and anywhere else they could reach, so restraining them was for their own protection and also had the added benefit of providing the stim they craved.

I don't want people to get the wrong idea about restraining children. Depending on a person’s training and their intent, perhaps their level of patients as well, restraining can be a useful tool, even a life saver. But it can also be child abuse when done for the wrong reasons or done improperly.

I received training and refresher classes regularly, as periods of time would go by without having to do any retraints and without practice it is easy to make mistakes. Anyone who uses restraining techniques as corporal punishment is abusing children in my opinion.

At NYS OCFS, not only were restraints reviewed and scrutinized, but medical staff was brought in the check youth for injuries. No one’s word was taken for it, not even the youth, who might be afraid to say something. All injuries, no matter how minor were noted and action would be taken against any staff member found to have exceeded acceptable limits.

I don't think any system is perfect and that child abuse won't ever happen, but the techniques are out there being used every day. It's time to implement them and replace the old cave dwelling ways of pre-humans.


I cannot believe someone would beat a 5 year old girl. Those people should be in prison.
I think this advice to avoid assault at school is better than the ACLU's advice:

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