Lawmakers renew push for parental consent, limits on corporal punishment in schools
TALLAHASSEE, FLA. 1/5/23-Rep. Katherine Waldron, D-Wellington, during the House Water Quality, Supply & Treatment Subcommittee, Thursday at the Capitol in Tallahassee. COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

A total of 19 school districts in Florida still allow spanking, paddling and other such physical punishments in school. And they don’t have to get a parent’s permission.

After spending some years in detention, legislation imposing new limits on corporal punishment in Florida’s public and charter schools is advancing.

The House Education Quality Subcommittee voted unanimously for a bill (HB 439) to allow corporal punishment — typically spanking with a wooden paddle — only after a student’s parents consent to it.

The measure would prohibit the punishment for students with disabilities, individual education plans, those who attend certain alternative schools and students experiencing homelessness. It would also allow only school principals to conduct the punishment, require at least one adult witness and mandate yearly reporting on the prevalence of corporal discipline at each school to the county and state.

“This is a parental rights bill,” said Wellington Democratic Rep. Katherine Waldron, the measure’s sponsor. “It’s not the business of the government to stand in the way of parents when it comes to topics so personal as the physical discipline of their child.”

Florida is one of 23 states in the U.S. that still allow students to be disciplined through the use of physical pain. Last year, President Joe Biden’s administration asked all of them to stop.

Nineteen school districts in the Sunshine State today — most of them in the Panhandle — allow the practice, which Florida law defines as “the moderate use of physical force or physical contact by a teacher or a principal as may be necessary to maintain discipline or to enforce school rule.”

Waldron noted that research has long shown corporal punishment to have a negative, long-lasting effect on children’s mental health and educational performance while doing little to nothing to reduce poor conduct.

It’s also disproportionately used on youths with disabilities, she said, and uniquely reserved among government-imposed punishments for schoolchildren.

“In fact, corporal punishment is actually banned in prisons, mental health facilities, hospitals, group homes and shelters,” she said. “Parents of schoolchildren should be forwarded the right to decide whether their children should be punished with physical methods.”

Waldron made clear that she does not approve of schools penalizing kids by physically hurting them.

Representatives from the Florida Developmental Disability Council, Florida Association of School Psychologists, Florida PTA, ARC of Florida, Disability Rights Florida and Florida Student Policy Forum, which asked Waldron to sponsor the proposal, agreed and signaled support for the measure Wednesday.

But while all members of the panel voted to advance the measure, some said it was either too restrictive or not restrictive enough.

Rep. Brad Yeager, a New Port Richey Republican, suggested that other than the additional shields for children with disabilities, corporal punishment should continue unabated. He said one of his children has an individual education plan, but shouldn’t be exempted.

Yeager asked Waldron whether she would consider changing her bill to instead require parents to opt out of having their children hit in school. Waldron explained that’s essentially the arrangement now, but many parents just aren’t aware of it.

Rep. Ryan Chamberlin, a Belleview Republican, asked Waldron if she had a replacement punishment in mind that school districts could use, “knowing that … the youth today (are) not trending from a disciplinary standpoint in a positive direction.”

Waldron said the Florida counties that banned corporal punishment reported no increased behavior issues among students. She added that other disciplinary actions, including detention, suspension and counseling, are already in use.

Several recent reports indicate today’s youths are behaving worse than their predecessors. Many of them, including one in 2022 by the National Center for Education Statistics, cite the pandemic as a major factor.

A recent survey Education Weekly conducted last year found that 70% of educators view student behavior as worse now than in 2019. Roughly the same share said student morale is lower than before COVID-19 struck.

But surely school spankings aren’t the answer, said Democratic Miami Gardens Rep. Christopher Benjamin, who argued Florida should impose an outright ban on corporal punishment.

“I thought it was (banned),” he said

“There are no guidelines in current statute that limit what they can be hit with, how many times they can be hit, for what they can be hit. This is so problematic. … I can tell you that if it were me, and my kid came home and told me that they mouthed off to the teacher and as a result … some principal took a piece of wood to them, me and that principal would have some issues. This bill doesn’t go far enough.”

Dating back to at least 2012, when Democratic Sen. Eleanor Sobel and Rep. Ari Porth carried identical measures that died without hearings in their respective chambers, Florida lawmakers have tried to outlaw or restrict corporal punishment in public schools.

Twin bills by former Democratic Sen. Annette Taddeo and former Republican Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin fared equally as dismally in 2020.

Waldron’s bill — which has co-sponsorship from Democratic Rep. Mike Gottlieb and Republican Reps. Mike Beltran, Alina Garcia and Mike Gottlieb — has only the House Education and Employment Committee to clear before reaching a floor vote.

A companion bill (SB 1318) by Orlando Democratic Sen. Geri Thompson awaits a hearing at the first of three committees to which it was referred this month.

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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