Corporal punishment is still a thing in some Florida schools; the Legislature is considering a requirement for parents to “opt-in”

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Reading sign at Sheehy Elementary School. By Pamela Robinson/WMNF News (2022).

By Ryan Dailey ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — A proposal that would require parents to “opt-in” for students to receive corporal punishment in schools got initial approval Wednesday from a House panel, with some of the bill’s supporters saying it doesn’t go far enough in curbing the disciplinary practice.

During the 2022-2023 school year, the state had 509 reported incidents of corporal punishment in 18 districts, according to data from the Florida Department of Education. The number of incidents fell from the previous two academic years, with 717 incidents reported in the 2021-2022 year and 736 incidents in the 2020-21 year.

Bill sponsor Katherine Waldron, D-Wellington, said the proposal is designed to “standardize” corporal punishment policies across the state. Waldron said “most counties have banned the practice,” but it is still allowed in 19 counties. Waldron characterized the bill as allowing parents to prevent physical punishments for their children.

“I believe this bill will be an important step in providing parents with the ability to safeguard their children. It’s not the business of the government to stand in the way of parents when it comes to a topic so personal as the physical discipline of their child,” Waldron said.

The House Education Quality Subcommittee unanimously approved the bill (HB 439). Under the measure, only school principals would be able to use corporal punishment on students. If principals decide to use corporal punishment in their schools, they would have to give parents of each student forms that essentially would allow the parents to agree to the punishment.

“Do you authorize the use of corporal punishment on your child?” the form would read, in part. If parents do not return completed forms, corporal punishment cannot be used on their students.

Waldron called the proposal a “parental rights bill.”

“This bill is a parental rights bill as it will allow parents of students to opt in to allow their children to be paddled,” Waldron said.

Corporal punishment is defined as “the moderate use of physical force or physical contact by a teacher or principal as may be necessary to maintain discipline or to enforce school rule,” according to a House staff analysis of the bill.

Certain categories of students could not be subject to corporal punishment under the measure, including students with disabilities who have individual education plans, students who attend alternative schools and students experiencing homelessness.

Olivia Babis, public policy analyst for Disability Rights Florida, spoke in support of shielding students with disabilities from potentially facing corporal punishment.

“We do support the exemption for students with disabilities. Because oftentimes a child’s manifestation, the behaviors, are the result of a disability. And they’re not able to control that,” Babis said.

Rep. Christopher Benjamin, D- Miami Gardens, voted for the bill but argued for a complete ban on corporal punishment in schools.

“This bill doesn’t go far enough. It should be outright banned. It is not a right to hit someone else’s kid. That’s not a right we possess,” Benjamin said.

House Education Quality Chairwoman Dana Trabulsy, R-Fort Pierce, said she “completely” agreed with Benjamin.

“I don’t think that we’re going far enough, but this is a good step in the right direction,” Trabulsy said.

The measure would need approval from the Education and Employment Committee before it could be considered by the full House. An identical Senate bill (SB 1318) has not been heard in committees as the 60-day legislative session nears the end of its fourth week.

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