JEFFERSON CITY • Through 13 years of teaching, Jennifer Kavanaugh never dreamed of hitting a child — not even once.
Kavanaugh, now a fifth-grade teacher at St. Margaret of Scotland School in St. Louis, previously taught in a school where children were physically punished for bad behavior, but she never participated.
She knows there are teachers across the state who do, however, and she wants it stopped.
“All studies point to the fact that corporal punishment does not make for a more peaceful, happier child,” she said at the Capitol on Wednesday.
Kavanaugh and about 30 of her fifth-grade students attended a hearing Wednesday on a bill, sponsored by Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, that would ban corporal punishment, or spanking, in both public and private schools in the state. The Senate Committee on Progress and Development unanimously passed the bill Wednesday afternoon.
“We need to stop assaulting our kids,” Keaveny said.
Missouri is one of 19 states that still allows corporal punishment in schools. The most recent states to ban it were New Mexico, in 2011, and Ohio, in 2009. Illinois also has a ban on this form of discipline, according to the Center for Effective Discipline, a National Child Protection Training Center program.
The country’s patchwork laws can largely be attributed to a 1977 Supreme Court ruling that left the issue up to the states. In Ingraham v. Wright, Florida students argued that the state’s corporal punishment policy violated both their Eighth and 14th Amendment rights. The court upheld Florida’s policy.
In Missouri, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education requires each school district’s written discipline policy to include a policy on corporal punishment. Should it be used, the local school board must determine how it will be used and whether a parent will be notified or can opt for a different form of discipline.
The department does not keep track of which districts in the state use corporal punishment. However, in 2009 the Missouri School Boards’ Association estimated that at least 70 districts in the state had policies allowing the use of corporal punishment.
A Post-Dispatch inquiry found that many districts in the St. Louis area — including St. Louis, Clayton, Lindbergh and Riverview Gardens — do not allow this type of discipline.
Ferguson-Florissant’s disciplinary policy also does not include spanking. District officials believe there are better ways — ranging from parent-teacher conferences to suspension or expulsion — to discipline a child, district spokeswoman Jana Shortt said.
But some districts do allow the practice. About 4,200 students across the state were physically punished in the 2009-2010 school year, the most recent numbers available, according to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.
The Fox School District in Jefferson County used to allow spanking in its schools, but it changed its policy in the early 2000s, said Lorenzo Rizzi, the district’s assistant superintendent of secondary education.
“I think the Board of Education no longer sees it as a proper way to punish kids,” Rizzi said. “The use of physical response doesn’t change behavior — oftentimes it escalates.”
The trend away from corporal punishment mirrors a national trend. For the 2009-2010 school year, about 184,500 students were physically punished, compared with about 223,000 in the 2005-2006 school year, according to the department.
A decrease, however, is not enough for Kavanaugh. She wants to see teachers use positive behavior supports.
“We need to require more of teachers,” she said.
No one spoke against the bill at Wednesday’s hearing. However, Sen. Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, voiced concern about including private schools in the bill.
“I do not support corporal punishment, but my parents sent me to a faith-based school … I’m opposed to government interfering in the curriculum.”
Senate Minority Leader and committee Chairwoman Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, said she wanted to move the bill forward but believed there could be a hang-up on the private school portion.
“I suspect we’ll hear from people who don’t want state intervention in private schools,” Justus said. “At some point, we may need some compromise when some folks come and talk to us. Right now, I haven’t heard any opposition.”