Controversy Surrounding Vague Corporal Punishment Laws Ignites Debate on Child Discipline

Orlando, Florida – State Attorney Andrew Bain’s decision not to prosecute a pastor accused of child abuse has sparked controversy. Several parents reported that the senior pastor of the Alpha Learning Academy used corporal punishment on 16 students, using a belt to strike them on their hips, legs, and backs. While public schools in Central Florida do not allow corporal punishment, private schools like the Alpha Learning Academy can legally administer it in Florida.

Deandre Boykin, one of the parents whose child was allegedly hit, expressed outrage at the lack of information provided to parents about this form of discipline. She stated that it felt as though her children’s rights were being violated, with no recourse for parents in these situations.

State Attorney Bain declined to press charges, citing that the current version of the Academy’s handbook does not mention corporal punishment, although older versions do. He suggested that the pastor may have believed he had the authority to discipline the children. Additionally, Bain explained that he could not prosecute because he could not prove the pastor’s intent to cause harm. However, the legal definitions for battery and child abuse lack clear guidelines about what constitutes harm or significant impairment.

Sociology professor Sarah Font argues that intentional vagueness in the language of corporal punishment laws provides flexibility for interpretation by both those administering the punishment and those investigating the incidents. She explains that states aim to avoid setting clear lines that could either permit behavior they want to regulate or punish behavior they want to avoid.

Florida Statute 39.1 defines abuse as any willful act or threatened act that causes physical, mental, or sexual harm or impairs a child’s physical, mental, or emotional health. However, the statute clarifies that corporal discipline of a child for disciplinary purposes does not constitute abuse as long as it does not cause harm. Florida Statute 784.03 outlines battery as intentionally touching or striking another person, causing bodily harm. Lastly, Florida Statute 1003.01 defines corporal punishment as the moderate use of physical force to maintain discipline or enforce school rules.

Efforts to restrict corporal punishment in schools are underway, with a bill in the Florida House aiming to further limit its use. This conversation is also happening at a national level, as the US Secretary of Education urges school districts to eliminate corporal punishment. Disparities are evident in its usage, with Black students, boys, and students with disabilities being more likely to be subjected to corporal punishment.

While the debate on corporal punishment continues, a recent case that could have challenged the 1977 decision permitting its use in schools was not taken up by the US Supreme Court. The ruling reinforces the current legal framework surrounding corporal punishment.