corporal punishment bill 041317

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

Louisiana's tradition of paddling public school students includes those with disabilities, and Gov. John Bel Edwards wants to make the practice illegal.

"Corporal punishment of children with disabilities should no longer be acceptable in Louisiana," Edwards said in a statement.

State Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, who has sponsored related bills in the Legislature, got the call to handle the governor's plan.

"Quite frankly, I was surprised that you could administer corporate punishment to kids with disabilities," Foil said.

Disciplining students with impairments is hardly rare. More than 500 students — 16 percent of all those disciplined during the 2015-16 school year — were disabled, according to state figures compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which backs the proposed legislation. 

Eden Heilman, director of the center's Louisiana office, said a law is needed because current rules impose a hardship on a vulnerable population. She said corporal punishment can worsen existing medical or other problems.

"Students with developmental disabilities can regress," she said. "A lot of students are being paddled for the very behavior that makes up their disability."

In the Livingston Parish school district, 59 of 300 students punished last year — 20 percent — had disabilities.

Under current rules, how corporal punishment is used is left to local school boards. Previous efforts to outlaw the practice entirely have failed, although another effort is planned this year.

Foil's bill would apply a ban only to pupils with disabilities. "There are other methods that would be more effective," he said.

Edwards made the same point. "There are better and more effective ways of correcting behavioral issues that don't jeopardize the children's safety but appropriately respond to their needs," he said.

Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, is sponsoring a similar bill, Senate Bill 91.

Foil said his proposed ban would apply to students with individual education plans, including those with speech or language impairments, developmental delays, emotional disturbances and autism. It would exclude students classified as gifted and talented.

Allowing all students to be paddled is in keeping with other state educational policies. Roughly 60,000 students were suspended during the 2015-16 school year, including about 11,000 with disabilities, according to state figures.

The governor's push to limit the practice may spark resistance from educators who contend the issue should remain a local option.

"Some districts utilize it; some don't," Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said in an email.

"Every instance of student discipline involves a specific set of facts in each case," Richard said. "As with any issue that would change local decision-making, there may be some concerns expressed by local school system leaders as the bill moves forward."

Districts that allow the practice often require parental approval before a student can be paddled.

Hollis Milton, president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said his group plans to review a wide range of bills on April 21.

Milton, who is superintendent of the West Feliciana Parish school district, said corporal punishment is not used in that system.

However, students with disabilities made up 20 percent or more of cases where physical discipline was used in 12 of Louisiana's 69 school districts, the Southern Poverty Law Center's analysis of state figures shows.

That includes the Evangeline Parish district, 22 percent; St. Mary Parish, 33 percent; and St. Landry Parish, 20 percent.

Livingston Parish school district officials could not be reached for comment.

Most of the state's largest school districts do not allow paddling, including those in East Baton Rouge, Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany, Jefferson, Ascension, Lafayette and West Baton Rouge parishes.

The rate in DeSoto Parish, in northwest Louisiana, was 27 percent for the 2015-16 school year: Nine of the 34 cases involved students with disabilities.

DeSoto Superintendent Cade Brumley on July 1 will succeed Milton as president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents.

"DeSoto still offers corporal punishment as an option to our parents, which is generally culturally accepted," Brumley said in an email response to questions. "However, our leadership team is actively working to phase it out."

Brumley said the governor's push will spark a needed discussion. Although the bill would impose a ban only for students with disabilities, he said, "the topic warrants further conversation among local leaders surrounding the overall merits of corporal punishment in Louisiana's schools."

Heilman, whose group favors an outright ban on paddling, rejected arguments that the decision should be left to local educators.

"As a state, we have an obligation to protect vulnerable populations from harm," she said.

Heilman also said there is no evidence that physical punishment increases students' respect for authority.

In 2009, a bill to outlaw corporal punishment in schools was killed by the House Education Committee. The same thing happened in 2010, this time for legislation that would require parental permission for students to be paddled.

The sponsor of both bills, state Rep. Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport, is sponsoring a third measure this year that would ban the practice — House Bill 497.

"I don't know why it is so important that we continue to whip children," Norton said during an earlier debate.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.