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Oklahoma lawmaker cites Bible while voting to allow corporal punishment for kids with disabilities

One representative argued that the Bible endorses the use of corporal punishment on children.

Oklahoma legislators failed to pass a law that would have banned the use of corporal punishment on children with disabilities in schools.

The bill, House Bill 1028, would have outlawed physical punishment — defined as slapping, spanking, paddling or other force — to be used by an educator on "any student identified with a disability in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act."

Currently, Oklahoma only prohibits corporal punishment when a child has “the most significant cognitive disabilities” — unless a parent or guardian signs a waiver allowing physical punishment to be used. House Bill 1028 also aimed to eradicate the waiver option.

On Tuesday, March 14, the bill failed to secure the 51 affirmative votes needed to pass, 45-43.

According to the World Health Organization, corporal punishment causes "harmful psychological and physiological responses" in children, including "pain, sadness, fear, anger, shame, guilt" and "physiological stress" when threatened. Children who have been subjected to corporal punishment also "tend to exhibit high hormonal reactivity to stress, overloaded biological systems, including the nervous, cardiovascular and nutritional systems, and changes in brain structure and function."

One Oklahoma lawmaker, who voted in favor of continuing to allow schools to use corporal punishment on some students with disabilities, cited the Bible, claiming that “God’s word is higher than all the so-called experts.”

“Several scriptures could be read here. Let me read just one, Proverbs 29: ‘The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame,’” Republican Rep. Jim Olsen said during debate. “So that would seem to endorse the use of corporal punishment.” reached out to Olsen for comment, but did not hear back at the time of publication.

How many states allow corporal punishment in schools?

There are 19 states that allow corporal punishment in schools and an estimated 160,000 children are subject to corporal punishment in U.S. schools each year. 

According to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, more than 69,000 students were physically struck by an administrator during the 2017-2018 school year — the most recent year on record. Children in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas are most likely to receive corporal punishment in school.

Students with disabilities are most likely to be subjected to physical punishment, according to the same Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights report, representing just 13.2% of the student enrollment but 16.5% of the students who received corporal punishment in 2017-2018.

Shani Chill, principal and executive director of iHOPE Academy, a specialized school in New York City that caters to students with traumatic brain injuries, says she believes corporal punishment should "never be used, but especially in the context of special education."

“It teaches the child that they have no rights, that they’re a bad person, and that there’s no room for them to learn to change or to grow on their own."

"Corporal punishment for a child with disabilities is a very confusing method of attempting to change behavior that is not necessarily in a child's control," Chill, who has been in the field of special education for 16 years, tells "It teaches the child that they have no rights, that they're a bad person, and that there's no room for them to learn to change or to grow on their own.

"I think when corporal punishment, unfortunately, is used, it’s often used because the people who are in charge don’t really know anything about special education and about special needs," she adds.

In a 2008 report conducted by the Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), several families interviewed shared that "episodes of corporal punishment directly preceded children’s regression in developmental terms," including one 7-year-old child with autism.

Anna M., the child's mother, shared that after her son was physically punished, he started to struggle with anger. "Right after the incidents, he’d have anger explosions. I still can’t come up behind him and hug him. It’s changed him," she said at the time.

"It's frustrating when lawmakers are making decisions about things that they don't have experience in," Chill says. "Even for my staff, there's a continuous level of learning that's involved as we get to know our students better and as the field of special education grows and evolves.

"My invitation to any lawmaker would be: Come," Chill adds. "Come visit a school, see what's going on in the classroom, talk to experts in the field and see how classrooms are managed before just jumping in and making decisions that are really going to negatively affect the students who need us the most."

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