Florida Legislators Working to Limit Use of Corporal Punishment in Schools

Lawmakers in the Florida House expressed surprise on Wednesday upon learning that public school officials still have the authority to use corporal punishment as a means of disciplining students. This practice, which is employed by nearly one-third of school districts, may face limitations under a proposal receiving bipartisan support during this legislative session.

Rather than outright banning paddling or hitting students, the proposal put forth by Democratic Representative Katherine Waldron from Palm Beach would require schools that employ corporal punishment to obtain parental permission at the beginning of each school year.

Principals would be prohibited from hitting students whose parents have not opted in or filled out a permission slip. The bill has received unanimous approval in its initial committee hearing, although the Senate version of the proposal has yet to be heard.

Democratic Representative Christopher Benjamin from Miami-Dade County stated, “Many people probably did think that it was already banned. I didn’t know it was a district-by-district thing. … 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 of mouthing off to the teacher some principal took a piece of wood to them; Me and that principal would have issues. This bill doesn’t go far enough. It should be outright banned.”

In addition to restricting corporal punishment, the measure also includes provisions that ban the use of physical force on students with disabilities and homeless students. Charter schools, which are considered public schools in Florida, would be required to comply with the corporal punishment restrictions.

Florida is not the only state allowing the use of corporal punishment in schools. While the practice is most common in southern states, only 27 states have explicitly banned it, according to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.

According to the Florida Department of Education, school districts have reduced their use of corporal punishment in recent years, but it is still not uncommon. In the previous school year, 18 districts reported 509 incidents in which physical force was used to discipline students. The authority to decide when and how students can be hit is primarily left to principals. Under this proposal, only principals, not teachers, would be allowed to administer physical punishment to students.

The reported instances of corporal punishment are concentrated in northern Florida counties such as Suwannee, Holmes, Columbia, and Calhoun.

Although the bill has received bipartisan support, some House Republicans on the Education Quality Subcommittee expressed opposition to the restriction against corporal punishment for students with individual education plans (IEPs), which indicate that students have different needs or may have a disability. Representative Brad Yeager from Pasco mentioned that his son has an IEP, but it does not affect his behavior. He also suggested that Waldron consider revising the bill so that parents would have to state that they don’t want principals to paddle their children.

Waldron argued that the IEP provision is meant to protect students with disabilities who may not have full control over their behavior. According to the U.S. Department of Education, school officials reported hitting 200 students with disabilities during the 2020-2021 school year.

Republican Representative Ryan Chamberlin from Marion raised questions about whether misbehavior had increased in counties that didn’t use corporal punishment. This line of questioning irritated fellow Republican Representative Mike Beltran from Hillsborough and Manatee, who is one of the sponsors of the bill.

Beltran stated, “The subtext to some of the questioning was that somehow we were being lenient, or excessively lenient to children, or that there was some problem in society that arose today that we need to preserve, or expand, or continue to use corporal punishment. I haven’t been lenient at all.” He also called for a complete ban on corporal punishment, noting that the Legislature had attempted to do so in 2019 when Senator Annettee Taddeo sponsored a bill prohibiting the practice. He added, “I could get sentenced by a judge, and they’re still not going to paddle me. Yet some principal and some teacher, basically, can decide to discipline the child. It makes absolutely no sense. It’s completely susceptible to capricious and arbitrary treatment.”

Chamberlin clarified that he asked those questions out of curiosity about Florida’s use of corporal punishment. He stated, “It’s not about necessarily personal preference. It’s understanding what’s in the best interest of the children and how they can grow and learn.”

Waldron credited a group of University of Florida students for advocating on behalf of this issue and prompting lawmakers to address it.