For some people, paddling is a valid way to discipline children, while a lot of others disagree and consider it as potential child abuse. In Kentucky, where paddling is allowed in school, a 13-year-old kid wants to stop this form of negative reinforcement. Alex Young unfolded his notes as he stepped to the podium under the dome of Kentucky’s Capitol Rotunda. The day before, He had rehearsed over and over his short speech. He was hoping that his speech would gather support for the bill he wrote with his classmates banning teachers from paddling students. However, he was still a little nervous because he has never spoken at the Capitol before and he was losing day light in the 2017 legislative session.
His voice was heard through the marble hall as he rattled off for required definitions. As he was delivering his speech, he glanced occasionally at his written remarks denouncing what he saw as an outdated practice. He was like an untested politician as everybody saw how he gripped the mic in his right hand and gestured with his left.
“As students, the use of corporal punishment scares us,” Alex said. “As Kentuckians, the use of corporal punishment embarrasses us.”
It started as an after-school activity for Alex Young until it became as an opportunity and a responsibility to help kids throughout Kentucky by changing the state’s corporal punishment laws. He and his classmate’s bill had passed through the Kentucky Youth Assembly, a mock government program, and transitioned to Frankfort. He thought that if he and his classmates didn’t do something, no one else would and he was afraid that the idea would just die.
During lunch one day, Alex’s dad mentioned that kids could still be corporally punished in school. Alex didn’t believe him, so he Googled it.“The idea was kind of surreal, that kids were still being hit with paddles in school,” he said.
Classmates of Alex were also shocked. They have heard of kids being spanked at home, but never in school. So he and some of his classmate wrote a bill for Kentucky Youth Assembly that would charge teachers who paddle students with a misdemeanor and subject them to consequences as severe as termination of employment.
Last December, the proposal went up against roughly 75 other bills during the annual Kentucky Youth Assembly meeting in Louisville.
After days of debate by student delegates, the bill abolishing corporal punishment in schools was signed into law by the governor, a high school freshman from Elizabethtown.
Winter break gave Alex the chance to reflect on the bill and the issue of corporal punishment. At St. Agnes, he said, he feels safe, like he can talk to teachers about issues he’s having. But that wouldn’t be the case if his teachers were allowed to paddle him.
We can’t just let kids continue to be in this position, he thought.
So, unbeknownst to his parents, Alex wrote a letter to his state representative, Jim Wayne, a Democrat, asking him to sponsor the bill in the General Assembly.
“He had asked his dad for a stamp, and his dad asked, ‘Well, what are you doing?” recalled Laurie Young, his mother. “And that’s kind of where it went from there.”
Wayne, a psychotherapist who has worked with children and adolescents, believes that corporal punishment is ineffective, began meeting with Alex and his classmates in January; and they made some changes to the Kentucky Youth Assembly bill. In February, at the tail end of the 2017 legislative session, Wayne, along with fellow Louisville Democrat Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, filed House Bill 393.
The bill died in committee but garnered attention on social media, exactly as Wayne and the students had hoped. Since then, the group has conducted hours of research and continued to meet at St. Agnes to strategize for the 2018 legislative session. Though the bill will use the same language as this year’s legislation, the students have been calling Republican lawmakers to secure a co-sponsor for what Alex calls a bipartisan bill.
The whole process has required frank discussions with young teenagers about “political reality,” said Wayne, who attends St. Agnes’ church. “It’s not always common sense in politics.”
If you invite a University of Louisville professor to testify before the committee, you’re going to need to also invite an expert from the University of Kentucky, he has told them. This bill could take years to pass. And at the end of the day, even if your heart’s in the right place, some lawmakers still won’t support it if it doesn’t align with their party affiliation.
Indeed, some Kentucky lawmakers aren’t interested in changing the current laws.
“There was corporal punishment when I was going to school, and I’m not any worse the wear for it,” Senate Education Committee Chairman Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, said in a statement to the Courier-Journal. “I’m not a fan of changing the law unless it’s absolutely necessary. At this point, I don’t know that anybody has presented any overwhelming evidence that we need a change in the law.”
Requests for interviews with Wilson, as well as Rep. Bam Carney, chair of the House Education Committee, were not granted.
Some of the reactions Alex has gotten from lawmakers have been surprising. It was discouraging at first, he said, but he and his classmates have learned to just keep working. He thinks that with kids pushing for change has probably both helped and hurt their cause.
On one hand, he feels like some lawmakers don’t take him seriously because he’s not old enough to vote. On the other hand, “it’s harder for adults to put themselves in the shoes of kids” who are being corporally punished.
“I think being students without a political agenda, it’s easier for us to see what’s right or wrong,” he said. “I think some of the legislators kind of get blinded and stuck in their chaotic world of politics.”
After his speech in the Capitol’s rotunda, Alex greeted supporters, did his first-ever TV interview and sat in on a committee meeting about Real ID legislation. He scarfed down a cheeseburger in the Capitol’s cafeteria before taking the bus back to St. Agnes, just in time for gym class.
The kids were supposed to be playing basketball, but instead, Alex and his classmates just talked about his visit to the Capitol. Teachers wanted the details: How did it go? Who was there?
For Alex, the entire experience has been a lesson about the real world — about effecting change and trying to get stuff done. The world is a messy place. Instead of running away from it, people need to step up and say, “I want to fix this,” he said.
When he thinks about the immediate future, he’s uncertain how long he’ll be able to stick with the bill. He wants to see what happens in the coming legislative session and then go from there.
But in the long term, he has an idea of what’s to come.what a brave and smart kid. I think he might like to run for office someday.
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