Corporal punishment at 19th-century American school. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
State Sen. Annette Taddeo stood before colleagues this spring looking for support to ban corporal punishment at school – a form of discipline, usually paddling, that’s considered a vestige of the past in many states.
“In 2019, can you believe that the state of Florida still authorizes public schools to discipline our students using corporal punishment?” she asked senators. “Well I couldn’t believe it either,” said Taddeo, a Democrat representing Miami-Dade.
Across a broad swath of north Florida counties, some bordering the Deep South states of Alabama and Georgia, corporal punishment isn’t archaic — it’s a modern-day practice used to handle disciplinary infractions, with school officials striking little kids to teens.
Some school officials, lawmakers and families support the practice, while civil rights groups and other organizations vehemently oppose it.
Yet, 19 districts — almost a third of Florida’s 67 school districts — reported incidents of corporal punishment in 2017-18, based on the most recent statewide data. The state defines the practice as “the moderate use of physical force or physical contact by a teacher or principal to maintain discipline or to enforce school rules.”
Boys were hit far more than girls, according to a Florida Phoenix analysis of the 2017-18 data, and in several districts, a disproportionate share of black students and biracial kids received corporal punishment. That doesn’t surprise researchers who have been following the corporal punishment debates.
A study released this month by The Center for Civil Rights Remedies, an initiative of the UCLA Civil Rights Project, and the Montgomery, Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, starts out saying: “It can still be heard in some American schools: The sound of a wooden paddle striking the backside of a child.”
“Corporal punishment in school has resulted in bruising, muscle damage, broken bones and other conditions requiring students to seek medical attention. One study found that up to 20,000 students subjected to the practice may seek medical treatment each year,” the study shows.
In addition to physical injury, corporal punishment can impact academics, and lead to school absences and even dropping out, among other negative consequences, the study notes.
In 2016, the then-U.S. Education Secretary, John B. King, Jr., urged states to ban corporal punishment, saying, “This practice has no place in the public schools of a modern nation that plays such an essential role in the advancement and protection of civil and human rights.”
Still, 19 states – mostly southern states — allow corporal punishment, according to a 2018 analysis by the nonprofit Education Commission of the States, which tracks education policies. That group includes Florida.
That said, corporal punishment in Florida has declined dramatically over the years, from 84,495 incidents in 1987-88, to 4,869 in 2007-08, to 1,352 in 2017-18, according to the Florida Department of Education.
Sen. Taddeo, however, believes the number of corporal punishment incidents may be underreported.
Many Florida districts, including Miami-Dade, have banned corporal punishment as a means of discipline, she says, so presumably they wouldn’t be reporting such incidents because they wouldn’t exist.
But what if corporal punishment is still occurring in districts which supposedly have banned it?
Taddeo pointed to a recent Miami Herald story, which involved a Broward County teacher’s aide accused several years ago of striking a 10-year-old autistic child. Prosecutors dropped the charges, acknowledging state law still allows corporal punishment, according to the newspaper. The aide at one point returned to a classroom, working with kids with disabilities, despite the Broward district’s policy against using corporal punishment.
“I believe there’s a lot more going on, we just don’t know it,” Taddeo said in an interview with the Phoenix.
Research shows that use of corporal punishment also applies disproportionately to students with disabilities.
Still, some districts believe corporal punishment continues to be an effective tool.
Bill Brothers is assistant superintendent for administration in Suwannee County School District, in North Florida.
He says the district uses a paddle on students — with a parent’s permission. Families fill out a form at the beginning of the year, allowing schools to use, or opt out of, corporal punishment. If families opt out, the school will use other disciplinary approaches, such as a suspension, Brothers said.
But some kids would “rather just go ahead and take a lick and go back to class,” Brothers said. In that scenario, another school official will serve as a witness of the corporal punishment.
Brothers recalls that he was paddled when he was little – for misbehaving on the playground. That was in neighboring Madison County.
Suwannee reported 176 incidents of corporal punishment in 2017-18, the third-highest number of the 19 districts that reported the practice. The highest figure was in the Columbia County school district, which reported 191 incidents. Jackson County school district reported 184 incidents. Both are in North Florida. Only one county outside North Florida – Hardee – reported using corporal punishment.
When Sen. Taddeo tried to convince colleagues on the state Legislature’s Senate Education Committee this spring to ban corporal punishment in Florida, she was met with resistance.
At the time, State Sen. Bill Montford, a former school superintendent, said he couldn’t vote for a ban on corporal punishment, saying local school boards should be the ones deciding whether or not to use the practice.
A Democrat, Montford’s Senate district covers a wide area of north Florida, including six school districts that, as of 2017-18, used corporal punishment: Calhoun, Franklin, Gulf, Hamilton, Liberty and Wakulla. He’s also chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.
At the Senate Education Committee meeting, Montford recalled disciplining students by using corporal punishment. “In my early years as an administrator, it was basically my job to do this…It was a form of punishment. But I never considered it to be violent.”
But as the years went by, Montford said, “Personally I have turned 180 degrees. When I was a school superintendent here in Leon County, I outlawed corporal punishment. I did.”
But times are different now, and he said he had questions about whether corporal punishment worked.
Even so, “I just don’t’ feel comfortable in sitting here today and voting for this bill because I believe that the school board members…have made this decision in good conscience after a thorough analysis of their own community,” Montford said.
“I don’t want to interject myself into that.”
Here are all school districts using corporal punishment in 2017-18: Bradford, Calhoun, Clay, Columbia, Dixie, Franklin, Gilchrist, Gulf, Hamilton, Hardee, Holmes, Jackson, Lafayette, Levy, Liberty; Suwannee, Union, Wakulla and Washington.
Here are the states still using corporal punishment, according to the Education Commission of the States, as of August 2018: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming.
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