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Reforming a System of Assault on Students' Rights

Sarah Preston,
ACLU of North Carolina
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July 30, 2010

For the first time in 25 years, the North Carolina. legislature has passed much-needed reform regulating how local school districts use corporal punishment. Back in 1985, the legislature passed a law allowing schools to decide whether or not to use corporal punishment – as opposed to being required to do so. That led to big improvements, and by the start of the 2009-10 school year, 69 districts out of 115 had banned the practice. Yet according to a public records request conducted by Action for Children and the ACLU-NC, kids in North Carolina are still subjected to corporal punishment thousands of times a year – more than 1,400 times during the 2008-2009 school year alone. Unfortunately, legislators have simply protected the system, refusing even to require annual reporting on the use of corporal punishment from school districts.

Shockingly, there’s not even a state – or federal – law protecting children with disabilities from being subject to corporal punishment at school, a practice that was well-documented in the groundbreaking reports Impairing Education and A Violent Education, co-authored by the ACLU’s Human Rights Program and Human Rights Watch.

There does seem to be some progress, though. At the federal level, Congress is finally beginning to take note of this destructive practice, and things are already changing. Due in large part to the advocacy of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, on June 29, 2010, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) introduced the “Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act,” H.R. 5628. This bill would ban the use of corporal punishment in public schools and private schools that serve students receiving federal services. It is a huge step forward in eliminating this form of punishment in schools.

And here in North Carolina, after years of hearing from civil liberties and children’s advocates, legislators finally started to listen when they realized that children with disabilities – who could be physically and developmentally harmed by this kind of treatment – are not protected. It may not seem like a huge step, but for the first time, the N.C. House and Senate unanimously supported a bill to regulate corporal punishment against students with disabilities. The new law creates a mechanism by which parents of students with disabilities can prevent their children from being subjected to corporal punishment in school and requires extensive reporting from school districts that use corporal punishment. Until this law was enacted, schools were only required to keep track of how many students were punished physically in school and even that data was not correlated or reported to anyone at the state level. Now schools have to report to the state the race, grade level, whether the child had a disability, and why corporal punishment was used on an annual basis. Because of this change, students with disabilities in all 23 districts that use corporal punishment will be protected and parents, advocates, school districts, and the state will more easily be able to monitor how corporal punishment is being used across North Carolina.

What’s more, support for a total ban on the use of corporal punishment is building in North Carolina. Since the bill protecting children with disabilities went into effect on Friday, July 23rd, three districts have reported banning corporal punishment and a fourth has reported that they created an “opt-out” for all children so that any parents can remove their child from being subject to corporal punishment. More districts are set to vote on a local ban. A coalition of organizations like the ACLU-NC that are concerned about child safety and students’ rights continues to build momentum so that very soon North Carolina can join the 30 other states that ban the use of corporal punishment in schools.

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