Alex Young’s push to end corporal punishment in Kentucky schools started with a mock bill he filed at a student-leadership event when he was in the 7th grade. That led to years of testimony and advocacy for an actual piece of legislation before state lawmakers.
Even though that bill has not passed, rates of corporal punishment in the state have declined dramatically in the six years since. Young and a group of friends have tracked data, successfully pressed for changes in state regulations, and even called superintendents directly to challenge their schools’ use of the discipline practice.
Those efforts continue today, even as Young completes his freshman year in college at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He plans to keep up his efforts until the Kentucky legislature formally codifies a ban on paddling in schools. He’s particularly concerned about students who’ve experienced trauma outside of school and students with disabilities, who are more subject to a large share of school paddling incidents in the state.
“We need our students to be able to trust administrators, to trust teachers, because when they go home, they might not have that safe place,” Young said. “When they come to school, that should be their refuge.”
Corporal punishment is legal in public schools in 19 states. Since he began his efforts, Young has also heard from student advocates in Missouri and elsewhere about making similar pushes.
Young spoke to Education Week about his advocacy work, what he learned about government in the process, and how schools can nurture students’ interest in civics by focusing on issues that affect their day-to-day lives.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What got you interested in corporal punishment in schools?
I started off preparing for a mock-government program called Kentucky Youth Assembly in 7th grade. I was researching ideas for mock legislation and I somehow came across that corporal punishment was still legal in Kentucky. It just boggled my mind that kids were still being paddled in the classroom in 2016. That was such a foreign idea to me, and I thought it was crazy.
So that led me to presenting the mock legislation, which was a great success there amongst students. I think every student who wasn’t affected by [corporal punishment] was pretty shocked by it. And that the students that were in areas where it was happening were like, “We need to change this.”
How did that mock bill become actual legislation?
After the conference, after a little bit further reflection, I decided that an actual change needed to be made [in state law]. So I took it upon myself to write to my state representative at the time. He emailed back within days, “Let’s make a bill. This is absurd and needs to change.”
Everything kind of went from there.
How much attention had you paid to your state legislature before then? Did you know how it worked before you got personally involved?
Very little. ... I just kind of jumped right in once I realized that there was not the necessary attention to this problem. It’s been a steep learning curve.
The bill that eventually passed the state House was never passed by the full assembly. Were you surprised by the challenges you faced along the way?
My representative had been in the legislature for 20-plus years at that time. He explained the uphill battle we had. That was disappointing to me right from the get-go, that something that would seem to be such low-hanging fruit could be so hard for people to grasp.
But we did start to build momentum. In 2018, I was able to secure our first Republican co-sponsor, and with that, we were able to get probably 10 more Republican sponsors. We made it a bipartisan issue and then we were able to build momentum from there.
We faced many obstacles along the way, one being that the Senate decided not to take it up after they had to cancel [their session] for COVID-19 in 2020. I’ve also had lawmakers tell me that they don’t want to vote on the issue because they’re worried a school board member will run against them.
I understand that you contacted some district leaders directly about their districts’ use of corporal punishment. What did you learn through those conversations?
Actually, the conversations I’ve had with superintendents, I think have been a lot more productive than the ones I’ve had with legislators because they’re able to make impact in a quick manner once they realize how big of a problem it is.
In the 2017-18 year, according to Kentucky data, one county had an exponential increase in [corporal punishment] incidents from the year prior. When that data came out, I called the superintendent, and she was in disbelief when I told her the numbers. She called me back the next day with her attorney, saying those numbers were, in fact, correct.
We need more efforts to get students in places where decisions are being made about their education.
[The district] had just hired two new assistant principals from Tennessee in districts where they used corporal punishment frequently. Those new assistant principals decided that they were going to implement corporal punishment as a regular form of discipline. But after that conversation, the number of incidents in that county was pretty much cut in half the next year. So we were able to make a big impact just with that one phone call.
You talk a lot about the state data. When you started this work, were you aware of the numbers? How important have data been for your efforts?
When I first started looking at [the issue], it was more empathy-driven. It was a feeling of “I’m a student. How in the world are we hitting kids in school?” I know I wouldn’t feel safe, if there was a threat of a teacher hitting me, and I still feel that way.
But looking at the data, it’s helped us appeal to an audience that might not be so driven by those emotional arguments. For example, in the 2019-20 school year, out of 142 incidents, 65 of them involved students with disabilities, That’s 46 percent of incidents. I mean, that was heartbreaking. Students my age with disabilities that need resources—that need help—were being hit in school. I just couldn’t imagine.
So the bill hasn’t passed, but your state board of education passed new restrictions on corporal punishment in December 2021. Do you consider that meeting your goal?
We’ve had a significant impact. When I started in 2017, there were 452 incidents. Last year, there were 17. That’s a 96 percent incident decrease. I can’t take credit for all of that, but our advocacy certainly has made a difference.
Last year, there were only two school districts that actually used corporal punishment. And then I called the superintendent of one of those districts a few weeks ago, and he said they had banned it this year.
Eventually, we are going to get it off the books completely. It may take time in the state legislature, but we will get there.
That state board of education regulation that we lobbied for is going to make a significant impact. It bans corporal punishment for students with IEPs [individualized education programs], so students with disabilities can no longer be paddled. Students experiencing homelessness [and students in foster care] can no longer be paddled. It requires two forms of parental consent, and students must receive counseling within 24 hours of paddling.
So the goal with that is, to be quite frank, to just to make it an absolute administrative nightmare [to carry out corporal punishment in school].
Beyond corporal punishment, do you think students would be surprised if they saw more data on issues that affect them?
Absolutely. We need students to get involved in these issues. One of the things I’ve been most proud of is seeing students from Kentucky come together to speak out, whether it’s on this issue or taking mental health days from school. There’s also been a student movement to get more safety measures in place to our schools.
Kentucky, a few years ago, added our first student member to the [state] board of education. We need more efforts to get students in places where decisions are being made about their education.
What advice do you have for educators about encouraging their students to get more interested in civics?
I really think that engaging students with issues that are interesting to them is the best place to start. And teach them about the importance of being engaged and how decisions—whether they’re made at a local, state, or national level—impact their lives.
It’s so important that we have students who vote once they’re able to, who show up to school board meetings, who show up to legislative meetings, who understand how decisions are made.
A version of this article appeared in the December 14, 2022 edition of Education Week as How a Student’s Push to End Paddling in Schools Became a Yearslong Civics Lesson