corporal punishment bill 041317

State Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, at his desk in the House chamber on Thursday, April 13, 2017.

A three-line amendment on a three-page bill added nearly 46,000 students to Gov. John Bel Edwards' measure to ban the paddling of public school students with disabilities.

The little-noticed change to House Bill 79 means that nearly one out of five students will be off limits for corporal amendment, well above the original target.

Even the sponsors of the bill did not know how much the amendment would expand the prohibition in a state where corporal punishment remains an option, especially in rural areas.

But Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, who the governor asked to back the measure, said he was pleased with the addition after initial concerns that it might make the bill too controversial. "I would rather have the bill broad to cover those who are vulnerable," Foil said.

The House had rejected a separate proposal – House Bill 497 – that would outlaw corporal punishment entirely, amid arguments voiced for years that local school systems should make that call.

"We did not want to make my bill too broad," Foil said.

While 31 states have outlawed paddling, it remains an option in 38 of 69 school districts in Louisiana, including the Livingston Parish School District.

About 16 percent of students paddled had disabilities in the 2015-16 school year, according to figures compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The legislation, which Edwards included as part of his modest public schools agenda, was originally aimed at students with Individual Education Plans, or IEPs. That includes about 88,000 students with autism, speech or language impairment, developmental delay and emotional disturbance, according to state figures.

The change that expanded the students covered by more than 50 percent was added in the Senate Education Committee by Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West  Monroe.

Walsworth said that that, before the alteration, the proposed law was drawing too fine a line, and that lots of other students with medical issues should be off limits to paddling.

His amendment expanded the bill to include students with Individual Accommodation Plans, or IAPs, also known as 504 students after the 1973 federal law aimed at assisting them. That added 45,638 students, according to figures from the state Department of Education. More than half are those with attention deficit hyperactive disorder, officials said.

Walsworth said that, while some medical issues are obvious, others are known only to school officials and the amendment would give those systems needed flexibility.

In some cases, he said, discipline problems could erupt simply because a parent forgot to give a child medicine before school. "Just because he is acting up does not mean he should be paddled," Walsworth said.

Foil, Walsworth and others knew the amendment would widen the scope of the governor's bill.

However, no one seemed to know exactly how much.

"I don't think we ever got a number," Walsworth said.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Blade Morrish, R-Jennings, said the same thing.

Despite widening the ban on paddling, and years of defeats for bills to make all corporal punishment illegal, the expanded legislation sailed through the Legislature with questions but no major pushback.

It won Senate approval 36-0 one week before adjournment and the House endorsed it 89-0 with  two days left.

The governor on Thursday night cited the measure as one of the success stories in a session that ended in chaos, forcing a special session to approve an operating budget.

Officials of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which favors an outright ban on corporal punishment, supported Walsworth's amendment, said Sarah Omojola, policy counsel for the group.

"This is a welcomed and long-overdue policy change that will ensure that our most vulnerable students are protected from this cruel and ineffective practice," Omojola said in a statement issued when the bill won final approval.

The ban includes using physical force to discipline a student with or without an object. That includes hitting, paddling, striking, slapping or any other physical force that causes pain or physical discomfort.

The bill excludes students who are gifted or talented.

Foil said he heard from parents who wanted children protected from paddling sparked by medical issues beyond the original intent of the plan.

"I do want to protect children who do not understand the reason for the punishment," he said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.