Federal education officials are urging state and local school leaders across the nation to do away with corporal punishment, a practice they say disproportionately affects students with disabilities.

In a “Dear Colleague” letter to governors, chief state school officers and leaders at schools and school districts, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said that educators should move away from “paddling, spanking or otherwise imposing physical punishment on students.”

Federal data suggests that the use of corporal punishment in schools has declined in recent years. But, it remains legal in at least 23 states, though some states that permit the practice generally don’t allow it to be used with students who have disabilities.

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“Unfortunately, some schools continue to put the mental and physical well-being of students at risk by implementing the practice of corporal punishment,” Cardona wrote in the letter sent last week. “Therefore, if the use of corporal punishment is permitted or practiced in schools and educational settings within your state or district, I urge you to move swiftly toward condemning and eliminating it.”

Cardona cites evidence showing that corporal punishment can lead to physical pain and injury, higher rates of mental health issues as well as aggression, lower academic achievement and other consequences. Moreover, he notes that it’s “antithetical to positive child and adolescent development and school safety.”

Instead, Cardona says that schools should employ evidence-based practices including positive behavioral interventions to address behavior issues and he points out that federal funding and technical assistance are available to help schools make the switch. In addition, the Education Department released a 27-page document on guiding principles to help schools create “safe, inclusive, supportive and fair” learning environments.

“Despite years of research linking corporal punishment to poorer psychological, behavioral and academic outcomes, tens of thousands of children and youth are subjected to beating and hitting or other forms of physical harm in school every academic year, with students of color and students with disabilities disproportionately affected,” said Cardona who called it “unacceptable” that the practice remains legal in some states. “Schools should be places where students and educators interact in positive, nurturing ways that foster students’ growth and development, dignity and sense of belonging — not places that condone violence and instill fear and mistrust.”

Denise Marshall, CEO of The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, or COPAA, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of students with disabilities and their families, welcomed the efforts to put an end to corporal punishment in schools.

“Students with disabilities have corporal punishment inflicted at much higher rates than their peers. We hear painful stories of such things as students being taken out of their wheelchair and laid over a desk to be paddled,” Marshall said. “That’s just plain wrong, and has no place in school.”

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