That highest ranking comes even though Suwannee is one of the least populated counties in the state. Out of the 67 counties in Florida, only 28 reported using corporal punishment during the 2011-12 academic year.
According to Tiffany Cowie, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education, Suwannee reported 359 students received corporal punishment during the 2012-13 school year.
Corporal punishment is still a routine practice in public schools throughout the United States. There are 19 states that still engage in this form of penalty.
According to the Florida Department of Education Student Information Database, during the 2011-12 school year, 360 students received corporal punishment in the Suwannee County School District.
When asked about the county’s high number of corporal punishment incidents, Suwannee School District Superintendent Jerry Scarborough declined to comment.
“We have a serious problem here and it needs to be scrutinized,” said James McNulty, founder of Floridians Against Corporal Punishment in Public School.
As a civil rights and human rights activist, McNulty has recently made corporal punishment in Suwannee County the next mission of his campaign. He has already had success in Santa Rosa County. He said he is ready to focus on this county because of the alarming numbers of reported incidents.
McNulty’s passion for the movement is undeniable.
“It is in Florida’s public schools, of which I am a product of, that I first learned to hate, to fear, to hold contempt, to have feelings of rage and revenge,” he said. “Public school is where I also learned what violence was.”
The Suwannee County School District student code of conduct for the 2013-14 school year defines corporal punishment as “the moderate use of paddling in front of a certified adult witness by a principal/administrator may be necessary to maintain discipline or to enforce school rules.”
Although the code of conduct includes a permission form for parents to check yes or no to using the punishment on their children, there are many unanswered questions about the practices.
McNulty said the code of conduct does not specify the measurements of the instrument being used to hit the student, how many hits are being administered, what specific actions warrant corporal punishment, if there are gender restrictions (males hitting young females) and more.
“You will find that virtually anything goes,” McNulty said.
McNulty’s first pursuit was in Santa Rosa County, where months of opposition ended with a victory. According to the Northwest Florida Daily News, school officials will abolish corporal punishment, also known as “paddling”, in the student code of conduct for the 2014-15 school year.
He recalls the tedious process that went on for many months; endless public record requests, ignored emails and phone calls, and frenzied school board meetings. McNulty’s determination and perseverance marked a milestone in Santa Rosa County, but only a minor accomplishment in his civil rights campaign.
McNulty first became involved when he was at work and overheard two parents discussing school officials calling them for approval to paddle their teenage high school daughters.
Marie Caton, a parent of a Santa Rosa County student, initially said yes and gave permission to use corporal punishment on her 10-year-old son. It was after seeing “the deepest shade of black and purple” on her son’s body when the guilt ensued for giving permission, she said.
“These people are paid and hired by the state to protect our children, not physically hurt them,” Caton said. “As educated people you’d think they could come up with something better than punishment with a board.”
McNulty is currently awaiting requested public records of the recent school year for Suwannee County.
However, eliminating the use of corporal punishment does not alleviate the problem of student misbehavior.
“The use of out of school suspension should not be increased due to a reduction in the use of corporal punishment,” said Joseph Gagnon, association professor in special education at the University of Florida. “To do so, would be to replace one ineffective method of intervention with another ineffective method.”
Last year, Gagnon was approached by the Southern Poverty Law Center and teamed up with Professor Brianna Kennedy-Lewis to conduct the study “Disciplinary Practices in Florida Schools.”
According to the study, corporal punishment models and teaches that violence is an effective approach to solving problems. It also said paddling only punishes misbehavior and doesn’t teach positive social behavior.
After surveying Title I school principals, Gagnon noted these schools haven’t implemented policies that “prevent problem behavior and promote appropriate behavior.”
The intensive study offers recommendations concerning the use of corporal punishment starting with the immediate abolition of corporal punishment in Florida schools.
According to the study, individualized intervention and positive behavior intervention and support are shown to promote social and emotional learning for students.
He recommends “ongoing professional development to help educators, school staff and administrators implement evidence-based alternatives to corporal punishment and other ineffectual punishments.”
“We think we’re so advanced in the United States, but South Africa outlawed corporal punishment 20 years ago,” Gagnon said. “We’re not always ahead of the curve.”