Students with disabilities punished at higher rate at 60 schools - WSMV News 4

Students with disabilities punished at higher rate at 60 Middle Tennessee schools

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Christy Smith said her daughter was bruised after being paddled. (WSMV) Christy Smith said her daughter was bruised after being paddled. (WSMV)
NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -

A Channel 4 I-Team investigation has found that at 60 schools in Middle Tennessee, students with disabilities received corporal punishment at a higher rate than their peers without disabilities.

These are students protected under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which ensures services to children with a variety of special needs ranging from autism to intellectual and physical disabilities. 

The I-Team analyzed data from the 2013-2014 school year, which is the most recent data published by the U.S. Office of Civil Rights.

Districts must report every instance of corporal punishment to the federal government.

The question some parents are grappling with is whether corporal punishment creates more problems for kids already facing challenges.

All Preston Garcia’s family knows is how a physical reaction from a teacher affected their son with autism.

Adrian Garcia remembers getting the call from Brown’s Chapel Elementary in Rutherford County last August.

“‘We had an incident. Your son was allegedly smacked in the face,’” Garcia recalled. “And me, I just needed to hear it again. I told, ‘Excuse me, you’re going to have to repeat that last sentence again.’”

Schools with biggest disparity in use of corporal punishment
School system School name % of IDEA students punished % of students without disability punished Difference (by percent)
Overton Allons Elementary 62.5% 7.7% 54.8%
Macon Red Boiling Springs Elementary 65.5% 31.6% 33.9%
Lebanon SSD Sam Houston Elementary 20.7% 1.9% 18.8%
Jackson Dodson Branch Elementary 23.5% 6.5% 17%
DeKalb DeKalb County High 19.2% 3.2% 16%
Lebanon SSD Winfree Bryant Middle 18.1% 3% 15.1%
Jackson Gainesboro Elementary 17.6% 5.5% 12.1%
Marshall Westhills Elementary 22.1% 10.5% 11.6%
Lebanon SSD Byars Dowdy Elementary 12.5% 1.4% 11.1%
Smith Carthage Elementary 12.2% 3.7% 8.5%
Click to view full list

Preston had allegedly hit the teacher first during a meltdown in the bathroom, according to James Evans, a spokesman for Rutherford County Schools.

Evans said the special education teacher resigned the same day as the incident.

“I was pissed,” Garcia said. “You smack a 5-year-old in the face, nonverbal, autistic, and I don’t care what he did, he could have brought hell to you, I mean you still don’t smack a 5-year-old in the face.”

Law enforcement investigated the incident, but District Attorney Jennings Jones said he decided against prosecuting the teacher due to a lack of evidence.

While the district’s corporal punishment policy does not permit the striking of a student, the physical impact of the teacher left a mark on Preston.

His mother, Renee Garcia, said they had to stop potty training their son. He had experienced more meltdowns, leading the family to increase the frequency of his therapy sessions.

“It was hard,” Garcia said. “He had a new medication regimen. It was very difficult. I had to put my son through hell.”

Psychologist Dr. Charles Ihrig said he’s worked with several students who suffered setbacks after being physically punished.

He fears some may even be getting disciplined for behaviors tied to the disability.

“They are going to cause the child to be more anxious, more stimulated, more angry, more hyper and basically act out more,” Ihrig said. “It’s not solving the problem, it’s making it worse.”

Christy Smith said she saw changes in her daughter, too.

“I felt like she’s more skittish of people than she was,” Smith said. “She was more trusting and now she’s not.”

Smith’s daughter, Bailey, was diagnosed with ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder.

Last winter administrators at A.H. Roberts Elementary in Overton County called Smith to ask if they could paddle Bailey after she started arguing with a classmate.

Smith agreed. But she said she never agreed to what she found afterward.

“She was hit to the point to the extent she was bruised,” Smith said.

The mother said Bailey could barely sit down. But Smith said after the bruises had faded, the impact remained.

She claimed Bailey’s ADHD amplified - the girl allegedly become more skittish and more anxious.

Under federal law, ADHD can be considered a disability depending on the student.

Smith said in the case of Bailey, her disorder does not warrant special education.

In a statement, the superintendent of Overton County Schools said students with disabilities may only be paddled if that kind of discipline is outlined in their IEP, or individualized education plan.

But a Channel 4 I-Team investigation found in 60 schools across Middle Tennessee, students who were considered disabled received corporal punishment at a higher rate than their peers without special challenges.

And that’s just in one school year alone.

At Allons Elementary in Overton County, 62.5 percent of students with disabilities were physically punished during the 2013-14 school year. Compare that to 7.7 percent of students without disabilities who received corporal punishment.

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The I-Team also reviewed district policies where corporal punishment was used in Middle Tennessee. None of the policies banned corporal punishment for students with disabilities.

Only two districts - Hickman County Schools and Sumner County Schools - explicitly noted it would take a student’s emotional and physical "condition" into consideration before using corporal punishment.

Spokesmen for both Bailey and Preston’s districts declined interview requests.

But one director of schools did agree to talk on camera. He said what the I-Team discovered deserves a second look.

“We haven’t looked at those numbers. You brought it to my attention,” said Jacob Sorrells, the director of schools for Marshall County Schools. “So now it’s something we need to do.”

In Marshall County, the I-Team found that at five out of the nine schools surveyed, students with disabilities received corporal punishment at a higher rate than their peers without disabilities.

“I didn’t know that,” Sorrells said. “I didn’t realize that. We haven’t looked at that…sounds like we need to.”

The Garcias hope their school board has those same talks.

“I love [Preston] so much,” said Renee Garcia. “And we’re so angry that we have to go through this and we have to fight. We shouldn’t have to fight so hard.”

In Middle Tennessee, seven school districts have banned corporal punishment altogether.

Last November the U.S. Secretary of Education urged states to abolish the practice.

But in the Volunteer State, corporal punishment is still the law of the land. Practices are decided at the district level.

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