Oklahoma state Rep. John Talley thought his bill to bar schools from spanking children with disabilities would find little to no opposition at the state's legislature. After all, the Republican lawmaker said he had fielded calls with dozens of families and educational groups, drawn inspiration from his personal experience and received support from colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
Yet on Tuesday, what seemed like a rare bipartisan moment quickly came crashing down as other Republican lawmakers invoked the Bible to argue against Talley's House Bill 1028, claiming in some instances that "God's word is higher than all the so-called experts," as Rep. Jim Olsen posited during the proposed legislation's debate. The bill wound up with 45 votes in favor and 43 against -- six short of the 51 it needed to pass.
"Several scriptures could be read here. Let me read just one, Proverbs 29: 'The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame,'" Olsen said. "So that would seem to endorse the use of corporal punishment."
The problem with that assessment, Talley told The Washington Post, was that it conflated his bill with an overall ban on corporal punishment. House Bill 1028 would specifically prohibit schools from using that measure on "any student identified with a disability in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act." The current state law bars the punishment -- which includes slapping, spanking or paddling -- for children with "the most significant cognitive disabilities," unless the student's parents allow it through a waiver.
A minister himself, Talley also disagreed with Olsen's religious interpretation.
"Why don't we follow all the other Old Testament laws?" Talley said. "There's about 4,000 of them, and one of them is to not allow wives to wear jewelry, or stone your child if they're disobedient. Why don't we do that? Because we pick and choose what we want to follow."
Corporal punishment, though in decline, remains in use in American schools. For centuries, students have been whipped or struck by rulers and paddles. Even though New Jersey became the first state to ban the practice in public schools in 1867, it took over a century before other states followed suit. Then, a 1977 Supreme Court decision, Ingraham v. Wright, deemed corporal punishment at public schools to be constitutional and left it up to the states to decide what to do.
Oklahoma is among the 19 states where corporal punishment is still legal in public schools. In almost all states, except for New Jersey and Iowa, it's also allowed in private schools.
The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which compiles data on the disciplinary measure, last reported figures from the 2017-2018 school year, showing more than 69,000 students were struck at school that year. Mississippi had the highest rate, with more than 20,000 students, according to the office, followed by Texas with almost 14,000 and Alabama with over 9,000.
In Oklahoma, nearly 4,000 students were spanked or paddled during that school year -- including 853 students with disabilities.
Talley said he reviewed data showing that, during the 2021-2022 school year, 63 school districts in Oklahoma used corporal punishment on children with special needs 455 times. The year before, however, the Oklahoma State Department of Education prohibited employees or agents in the state's public schools from using corporal punishment on kids with disabilities -- yet that prohibition is a rule and doesn't amount to a state law.
"The students I'm trying to protect with this bill are those who probably don't understand why they're receiving corporal punishment," he said. "And having a school spanking them for doing something they don't know any better to do seems absolutely wrong."
The United Nations considers corporal punishment to be a human-rights violation -- and its Convention on the Rights of the Child urges countries to ban the practice. In the United States, groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Psychological Association have warned that corporal punishment can cause academic, emotional and behavioral problems. A 2016 Journal of Family Psychology study found that spanking increased the risk of aggression and antisocial behavior.
Still, Oklahoma lawmakers opposing the bill argued that corporal punishment is needed to maintain classroom order. Republican Rep. Randy Randleman -- a licensed psychologist who has worked in 155 school districts, according to his official bio -- said that although he doesn't endorse corporal punishment in every case, it is sometimes needed as a last resort to keep students in line.
"Discipline is not an issue of if it's going to happen, it's when it's going to happen," Randleman said during Tuesday's debate. "If you don't balance out nurturing and discipline, you will have many people in prison."
The proceedings on Oklahoma's House floor included support for the bill from Democratic lawmakers. Rep. Cyndi Munson, who said she experienced corporal punishment as a child, told the chamber that it was the first time she had debated in favor of a GOP-authored bill since 2016.
Talley said he still has hope that his bill will become state law. He'll bring it up for another vote Monday, when lawmakers who had been absent Tuesday would probably be back.
"This is an important one, and I'm not giving up," said Talley, who added that he'd been subjected to the punishment as a child and whose wife is a retired special education teacher. "I had a call with a U.S. marshal who told me his autistic daughter got spanked three times in a day for not doing her math correctly -- there's a point when you have to step up and say 'this is just wrong.'"