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State Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, R-Metairie, is the sponsor of a bill that would make corporal punishment illegal in public schools.

Efforts are underway in the Louisiana House and Senate to make it illegal to use physical force to discipline public school students, which happened nearly 1,000 times in the most recent count.

The practice, called corporal punishment, would be illegal under a bill filed by state Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, R-Metairie.

Hilferty said the issue comes down to a simple question for the state: "Do we believe that public employees should be allowed to hit children while on the public clock in a public facility?"

The proposal, House Bill 324, is awaiting action in the House Education Committee, as is a similar proposal in the Senate Education Committee.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, is sponsoring a resolution that would direct the state Department of Education to study whether it would be feasible to ban paddling and other forms of student punishment.

Fields wants the practice ended, and he said Black students make up an inordinate share of those punished.

"We shouldn't allow it," he said. "There is too much room for error. We just need to stop it."

Similar efforts have been tried before and failed.

Opponents of outlawing corporal punishment argue that the issue should be left to the state's 69 school districts.

Mike Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said his group would prefer a Fields-style study of the issue before any final action is taken.

The Fields' proposal – Senate Concurrent Resolution 18 – describes corporal punishment as the use of physical force to discipline students, including hitting, paddling, spanking, slapping or other action that causes pain or physical punishment.

Paddling and other forms of punishment are illegal in 31 states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Many of the states where the practice remains legal are in the South.

It was less than four years ago that the Legislature approved a bill that banned corporal punishment for students with disabilities, which covers about 88,000 students with autism, speech or language impairment, developmental delay and emotional disturbances.

Louisiana is one of five states that allow corporal punishment that excluded students with disabilities in recent years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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The others are Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Oklahoma.

The state Department of Education does not keep tabs on how many school districts allow corporal punishment.

However, local district officials file reports on cases where paddling and others forms of punishment are handed out.

A total of 30 school districts reported 970 "incidents" of corporal punishment for the 2019-20 school year, the latest figures available. Those actions targeted 744 students, which means some got it twice.

Districts in the Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Lafayette areas did not report any cases of corporal punishment for that year, including the East Baton Rouge, Jefferson, Orleans, Lafayette, St. Bernard, Ascension and St. Tammy parishes school districts.

The Livingston Parish School District reported 20 cases of corporal punishment.

Others include the Iberia Parish School District, 86; Jackson, 53; Evangeline, 50; Morehouse, 44; Richland, 43 and Caddo, 32.

In 2017 a bid to make corporal punishment illegal failed in the Louisiana House.

The vote was 34 in favor and 61 opposed, with opponents arguing that local educators should retain the option.

Backers of the bill argued the ban was especially needed to prevent male administrators from using physical force to discipline female students.

State Sen. J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs, was a House member in 2017, criticized the proposed ban then and reiterated those concerns last week.

"I would hate to see it totally abolished," said Pope, who was superintendent of the Livingston Parish School District for 14 years.

"You try every method that you can. But sometimes a parent says 'Let's try this,'" Pope said. "it needs to be there for an option, used as a last resort."

Fields has a different view.

"I don't know why there is so much resistance," he said of previous legislative opposition to banning the practice.

"But I do know that it should be illegal," Fields said.

"I don't think teachers want to have the responsibility of exercising corporal punishment inside of the classroom. So we should just get rid of it."

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.