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Paddling Makes Comeback in Florida Schools

Florida’s Marion County School Board has again allowed paddling in elementary schools, three years after banning corporal punishment. Though administrators did not recommend the move, three of five school board members voted the measure in, says Kevin Christian, a spokesperson for Marion County Public Schools. One of those leading the charge was a former elementary school principal who believes paddling works to curb behavioral issues. “It is an option available to elementary school principals, but I’m confident our principals will not use corporal punishment,” Christian says.

In 2007, Florida passed legislation allowing districts to apply for the right to strike students on the buttocks with a wooden or fiberglass paddle. The new Marion County policy has several restrictions: parents must give written consent once a year, and principals must get verbal permission from parents before actually giving the punishment. Corporal punishment can only be used in elementary schools, once per child per semester.

Even when a district decides to allow corporal punishment, principals have the final say. “To the best of my knowledge, though some districts have it on the books as policy, nearly every district stopped using it about 10 or 15 years ago because of liability issues,” says Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. Some Marion County School Board members felt it was in the best interest of the school to have it available as a last resource, he adds. “Every board has the right to do what they want at the local level, and if the public does not support it, they will let them know.”

In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment did not apply to corporal punishment in schools. Though instances have steadily declined since the early 1980s, corporal punishment is legally allowed in schools in 19 states (most in the South and Midwest), and banned in 31 states, according to the nonprofit Center for Effective Discipline. In the 2005-2006 school year, states with the most instances of corporal punishment were Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. The most recent statistics show more than 223,000 U.S. students received corporal punishment in 2006, according to the Center for Effective discipline.

Advocates for paddling argue that it teaches discipline and respect, while critics say it does not stop bad behavior. Studies have shown that physical punishment, including paddling, can lead to increased aggression, antisocial behavior, physical injury and mental health problems for children, according to the American Psychological Association.