Florida Students Seize on ‘Parental Rights’ to Stop Educators From Hitting Kids

An 18-year-old honors student says a spanking at her school went disturbingly beyond discipline. Now, she’s joined a student effort to fight back.

By Mark Keierleber | February 15, 2024
Brooklynn Daniels

Inside a Florida high school principal’s office, Brooklynn Daniels found herself alone with two men and a wooden paddle “that was thick like a chapter book.” 

In about a third of Florida school districts, and concentrated in rural panhandle enclaves like Daniels’s Liberty County, corporal punishment as a form of student discipline remains deeply ingrained in the culture. It’s why on this morning in early December, school leaders instructed the 18-year-old to bend over a desk.

What came next — a paddling that left deep purple bruises and welts for a minor school offense that Daniels said stemmed from a misunderstanding about Christmas decorations on a campus door — was far beyond routine student discipline, the Liberty County High School senior told The 74.

It was, she alleges, sexual assault. 

“They were so eager to go in there and spank me,” said Daniels, who said she was struck by Assistant Principal Tim Davis, a former Major League Baseball player who pitched for the Seattle Mariners, while Principal Eric Willis observed and laughed. “They took their time, they watched me.”

Liberty County School District officials didn’t respond to multiple interview requests. Reached by The 74 on his cell phone, Davis declined to comment on the incident or allegations that his use of force was sexual assault.  

The incident, which has sparked controversy in Florida’s least populous county roughly 50 miles west of Tallahassee, comes as state lawmakers debate the fate of rules that have long permitted teachers to spank students as a disciplinary measure. A significant body of research suggests that corporal punishment has the opposite effect of improving student behaviors and a data analysis by The 74 shows in parts of Florida, it’s most often used to address minor infractions like “excessive talking,” “insubordination” and “horse play.” 

Florida is one of 16 states where laws explicitly allow educators to use corporal punishment on students, and the practice is not expressly prohibited by laws in an additional seven states, according to a recent review by the U.S. Department of Education. In a letter last year, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona urged state lawmakers and school leaders “to move swiftly toward condemning and eliminating” a practice that “can lead to serious physical pain and injury,” is associated with heightened mental health issues, stunted brain development and hindered academic performance. Nationally, federal data show that corporal punishment is disproportionately used on students of color and those with disabilities. 

Prompted by the advocacy of two Florida college students, there is now pending legislation in the state, where roughly a third of districts use corporal punishment to discipline kids, that would require educators to get permission from parents each year before spanking their children. The measure would also ban the use of physical force on students with disabilities. The bill garnered unanimous support in a state House subcommittee last month. Yet a companion bill in the Senate has remained stalled and lawmakers worry the effort will falter this legislative session — as similar efforts have for years. 

Rep. Katherine Waldron, a Democrat who co-sponsored the bipartisan bill, said the subcommittee hearing was the furthest any effort to reform state corporal punishment rules has gotten to date. She credited the momentum to student advocacy, and specifically to the University of Florida students who launched a statewide campaign to change the law. 

“It’s great that we have this level of student involvement in the whole process and they’re really helping to push the bill and they’re learning a lot,” Waldron said. “Any time we have that kind of momentum for a good bill like this, I think representatives should pay attention and try to help.” 

In Liberty County, Daniels said that school officials accused her of lying to a substitute teacher and using her position in the school honor society to get her friend out of class to help with the holiday decorating. When school administrators approached her about the incident a week later, they gave her two options: in-school suspension or corporal punishment — a choice she said left her feeling coerced. The entire incident stemmed from an honest misunderstanding, she said, and accepting in-school suspension would have required her to miss an exam for a dual-enrollment college class and to be late for work at Chick-fil-A. 

She chose to get spanked. 

“As soon as it happened, I really just felt sexually assaulted. I felt disgusted with myself that I even kind of gave them permission,” said Daniels, who transitioned to online-only instruction after the incident and fears she may someday run into Davis or Willis at their small-town grocery store. Daniels has spoken out against corporal punishment in Florida schools and her paddling garnered local media attention. Her mother launched a Change.org petition calling on lawmakers to ban the “systemic issue prevalent across 19 school districts in Florida.” 

“I felt like they really just got off by it,” Daniels said, adding that a parent could face child protective services investigations for leaving similar bruises on their kid. “I don’t even think I could look them in the eyes now, not even now. And you know about my senior year, after the situation I really truly started realizing, I’m not going to have a senior year anymore.” 

‘You can get a paddling’

In recent years there have been numerous cases in Florida that resemble the one involving Daniels. Yet even in districts where parents can opt their children out of being hit as a form of discipline — and even in incidents where parents accuse educators of going too far — law enforcement officials have pointed to a state law permitting the practice. Kristina Vann, Daniels’s mother, said she had not given Liberty County educators consent to hit her daughter.

That didn’t stop Assistant Principal Davis from drawing the paddle. 

Robert “Dusty” Arnold

Daniels reported the incident to the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office and, in an interview with The 74, Undersheriff Robert “Dusty” Arnold acknowledged the agency looked into the case but said they don’t plan to pursue criminal charges. He called the case “a non-issue” involving a permitted form of discipline that Daniels had consented to. The entire incident, he said, was “being blown out of proportion.” 

“It’s the state law,” Arnold said in an interview. “And if you choose to take a paddling, you can get a paddling. My understanding is she was given options and she chose that.”

Sam Boyd, a supervising attorney at the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center, which has worked to prohibit corporal punishment in Florida and nationally, said he’s aware of “a fact pattern” of corporal punishment incidents “that may be much more of a serious sexual assault than punishment.” 

The case involving Daniels, who is an adult in the eyes of the law, presents its own set of complicated legal questions, he said. 

“To the extent that schools are stepping in for parents, if that’s the theory behind corporal punishment, it’s hard to see how that makes any sense in the context of people who are legally adults,” he said. “As a policy matter, it doesn’t make any sense to be using corporal punishment against adults, although of course it doesn’t in our view, make any sense to be using it against minors either.” 

Florida’s law permitting corporal punishment in schools has been used in previous incidents to shield educators from criminal charges. In 2018, for example, charges were dropped against a Lake County bus monitor who was accused of using corporal punishment on students with disabilities in ways that constituted child abuse, including grabbing children by their faces, twisting their heads and pushing them against a wall in the bus. Prosecutors concluded that the state law superseded a school district policy banning corporal punishment. 

Three years later, in 2021, an elementary school principal in Hendry County was caught on video spanking a 6-year-old girl with a wooden paddle despite a district policy prohibiting such actions. Although the state corporal punishment law requires educators to comply with local district rules, prosecutors declined to pursue charges and claimed the girl’s mother — an undocumented immigrant who filmed the encounter and shared the footage with a local television station — had consented to the beating and at no point spoke up to “raise any objection.” 

The Hendry County incident prompted an investigation by The 74, which revealed numerous incidents where students had been subjected to corporal punishment in school districts across the country where that practice had been outlawed. 

For University of Florida student Graham Bernstein, that investigation served as a wake-up call. The Hendry County incident coincided with another failed legislative effort to ban corporal punishment and he felt that more needed to be done to stop the practice, he told The 74. He joined up with a classmate, Konstantin Nakov, and wrote the bill now pending in Tallahassee that the duo hopes will persuade state officials to view Florida’s history of corporal punishment in a different light. 

The business of hitting kids

First, Bernstein and Nakov set out to get a better understanding of corporal punishment in Florida which, according to state data, was used to punish 509 students last school year.

Through emails and public records requests with districts statewide, the students found that the practice was being used to discipline the same students repeatedly — about half of whom were in special education — and often for minor classroom infractions. In Columbia County, records shared with The 74 revealed, spanking was primarily reserved for elementary school students. Of the 824 incidents of corporal punishment in the north central Florida county between August 2018 and May 2022, 84% were attributed to minor infractions including the use of inappropriate language, disrupting the classroom environment and inappropriate use of electronic devices. Fewer than 13% of incidents were initiated after a student hit a classmate.

The practice was also used more than a dozen times at Pathways Academy, an alternative education program in Columbia County which says on its website that it specifically serves students “with behavior, academic and attendance barriers” and those with disabilities who need additional support “to overcome their own barriers.” 

Columbia County school district officials didn’t respond to requests for comment about their corporal punishment practices. 

While previous efforts to ban corporal punishment in Florida schools have focused on the research suggesting it’s an ineffective disciplinary tool and has negative consequences for students, Bernstein and Nakov used another tact to get support from Republicans, who represent the rural, predominantly conservative counties where the practice is primarily used. 

They took a page from GOP Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s playbook and presented the issue as one of parental rights.

“I don’t know what it is about conservative Republicans, but some of them just think that it’s a good disciplinary intervention to strike children,” Bernstein said. “A big emphasis has been recently on the whole idea of parental rights and making it so the government doesn’t have the ability to do something without a parent agreeing to it. And so we thought we can apply that here. … Especially with some of these more conservative legislators, who are really zealous supporters of this idea of parental rights, let’s test their rhetoric against them and see if it sticks.” 

University of Florida student Graham Bernstein joins Konstantin Nakov for his graduation in May 2023. 

Still, getting buy-in from lawmakers wasn’t easy, said Nakov, who graduated from the University of Florida last year and now attends medical school in Bradenton, Florida. He and Bernstein have spent the last several years sending emails to legislative offices and taking road trips to the statehouse to speak with potential sponsors. 

Rep. Mike Beltran, a Republican from Apollo Beach who co-sponsored the bill, said the legislation fits in line with other efforts in Florida to bolster parental rights. 

“I don’t think the parents should spank the kids either, but certainly the school should not be doing it and certainly the school should not be doing it without the parents’ approval or knowledge,” Beltran said. “There’s no due process — there’s no due process at all — and you’re going to spank them?”

If Florida bans corporal punishment and educators fail to comply, Beltran said that students and parents should “sue their pants off.” 

‘I took it very easy on her’

Back in Liberty County, Brooklynn Daniels’s mother used a school communication platform to confront Davis on the way he spanked her daughter. In a text chat on the app ParentSquare that she shared with The 74, Vann offered the assistant principal photographic proof that her daughter’s “butt is red all over,” from the paddling. Davis declined the photo and defended his actions. 

“I can assure you I took it very easy on her,” Davis wrote. “I’m teased by staff in the front office about how soft I swing a paddle and I took it especially easy on Brooklyn, as I do with any female.” 

Tim Davis in a 1999 spring training portrait for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. (Otto Greule Jr. /Allsport/Getty Images)

Vann was floored at his characterization, especially given Davis’s career in professional baseball in the 1990s, which also included stints with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Milwaukee Brewers

“That man went from swinging bats for a living to beating children,” she said. “So how do I know where he went to school to learn how to — instead of hitting a baseball out into the outfield — to gently swing a paddle to hit my kid?” 

Vann sees insular, hometown favoritism at the root of how school leaders handled her daughter and defended Davis, a Liberty County High School alumnus. The family moved to the rural county from urban Tallahassee — and longtime residents, Vann said, resented Brooklynn.

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“She’s made homecoming twice, she’s a cheerleader, she’s well known in the community. She’s made her mark here and she’s not from Liberty County,” she said. “We have what they call the good ol’ boys system here. If you’re not born and raised here, they’re not going to protect you and they don’t like you. They don’t like outsiders.” 

Brooklynn Daniels holds a job at Chick-fil-A while she finishes up her last year of high school.

To Undersheriff Arnold, a fourth-generation Liberty County resident, the culture of school corporal punishment contributes to a polite community where people refer to others by “sir” and “ma’am.” He recalled the times when he was paddled inside the local schools, where he and other students were sternly punished “if you got out of line.” 

“It’s a lot of what our country is missing now: Too many people get away with too many things and there’s no punishment for anything, there’s no accountability for anything anymore,” Arnold said. “When you’re held accountable, it keeps you in check.” 

Arnold said he isn’t aware of any other instances in the county where a student reported school corporal punishment to law enforcement. He described the incident involving Daniels as one where a high school beauty pageant contestant has sought to rake in views and likes on social media. He offered a steadfast endorsement of local education leaders, adding that he’s “a little bit passionate when it comes to our school district.” 

“I know what kind of school we have, I have children at that school, and I trust those individuals with my kids’ lives,” he said. “They are good people — they are really good people. They don’t want to do anything else in this county but help these children get an education.”

Yet for Daniels, she can’t get away from the thick wooden paddle and the bruises it left on her body.

“It was black and blue and purple and yellow and you could see where all the bruises had already started forming” in just minutes, she said, after she left the principal’s office and rushed into a school bathroom.

“It’s insane how hard they hit me.”

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