Union County tops N.C. list in corporal punishment study of '99-2000 year
Union County used corporal punishment on children with disabilities more than any other N.C. school district in the 1999-2000 school year, according to a U.S. Department of Education study.
The nationwide study by the department's Office of Civil Rights examined a year in which 85 children with a range of disabilities received corporal punishment in Union County.
The numbers are notable because months of parent complaints have led the district to review its corporal punishment policy. Two weeks ago, Union suspended it, but the issue isn't settled. Opponents say minorities and children with disabilities receive corporal punishment at higher rates than others.
While the superintendent wants it abolished, the board is split, with the chairman and head of the policy committee saying they want to keep it. School officials said they couldn't explain why Union's numbers were so much higher than other districts in the 1999-2000 study.
"It concerns me our numbers are substantially higher, yes," said Union superintendent Jerry Thomas, who was not superintendent at the time.
The federal civil rights office collects statistics on topics like corporal punishment to "help us get a sense of the level of compliance with our civil rights statutes," said spokesman Jim Bradshaw.
Data from the survey, collected every two or three years, is used by social scientists conducting research on discrimination, and by civil rights and other groups, Bradshaw said. Some advocates for children with disabilities say they find using corporal punishment outrageous.
"If I were one of these parents in Union County, I'd be angry," said Connie Hawkins, director of the Exceptional Children's Assistance Center, a Davidson-based nonprofit center for N.C. families of children with disabilities.
"For some kids with disabilities, that (corporal punishment) isn't going to process. Does the child connect the spanking is related to something they did in the classroom an hour earlier? They may or may not," Hawkins said.
The report defines corporal punishment as "paddling, spanking, or other forms of physical punishment," and tracks it for students who fall under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
That includes children with autism, learning disabilities, speech/language impairment, orthopedic problems, emotional disturbance, and other disabilities.
Data was taken for the 2002-03 school year, but that report hasn't been released.
Behind Union in the study were McDowell County Schools, which used corporal punishment on 75 children with disabilities; Columbus County, 60; Gaston County, 60; Lenoir County, 55; and Anson County, 50. Most of these have fewer students than Union; Gaston is comparable with 31,285 students.
Seventy of 119 N.C. school districts reported no incidents of corporal punishment on disabled students, but some of those districts may not use it at all. Of the 49 that did report using it, the average was 21 children.
There are no state guidelines on corporal punishment for children with disabilities, said Lynn Smith, an N.C. Education Department consultant for parents of exceptional children.
Isabelle Mims, director of Union's exceptional children's program, said corporal punishment is "not the discipline of choice."
Mims said she would have to know what type of disability each child had and how far behind they were academically to compare Union's numbers with other districts. Union school board members asked about the numbers responded the same way.
Union officials say they aren't sure how many children total received corporal punishment in 1999-2000 -- they tracked the number of disabled children that year because of the federal study.
In 2002-03, corporal punishment was used a total of 463 times in Union's 28,000-student district, a rate that far exceeded other districts in the Charlotte region.
Gaston County's use of corporal punishment has dropped -- from using it on 60 disabled children alone in 1999-2000 to only 42 students of all backgrounds in 2003-04. In addition to waning public acceptance, the district says an annual $10,000 state and federal grant for supporting positive behavior, rather than punishing bad behavior, has led to the decline.
"We're focusing on helping the child maintain good behaviors, rather than waiting until they do something wrong to punish them," said Cathy Boshamer, director of Exceptional Children's Programs for Gaston schools. "It's one way we've dropped corporal punishment," she said.
While the district does still use corporal punishment, "it's discouraged," Boshamer said, and "we haven't seen any evidence of exceptional children being singled out."
In Union, the school board policy committee is reviewing the corporal punishment policy. It met Friday, and may make a recommendation to the rest of the board in a few weeks.
-- SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT JANE DUCKWALL CONTRIBUTED.
-- EMILY S. ACHENBAUM: (704) 289-6576; EACHENBAUM@CHARLOTTEOBSERVER.COM
HAVE YOU BEEN
TO THE NEWSROOM?