Administrators Challenge Abuse Findings Based on Paddling Bruises
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Gerald Winsett, a small-town principal who has paddled hundreds of kids for discipline in 24 years as an educator, was shocked when he opened a letter and read he is on Florida’s child abuser list.
He will appeal, but if unsuccessful, his name will remain for 50 years on the state Child Abuse Registry, which is confidential but is used for state- required screenings of day-care employees and other child caretakers.
″I’m disappointed that something like this is happening,″ Winsett said in a telephone interview. ″I don’t think what I did was child abuse in any sense and when they say if a mark is left on 24 hours they’re going to put you on the list ... that’s nonsense.″
Winsett is among dozens of school administrators put on the abuser list in what an attorney contends is part of an unofficial effort by the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services to stop paddling in schools.
The list contains hundreds of thousands of names of child abusers and those suspected or accused of child abuse.
Two unidentified middle school officials from north Florida on Monday asked the state Supreme Court to review a lower court decision upholding the state decision to put them on the list because of paddlings administered in 1987. The court is in recess until Aug. 31.
The lower court’s 2-1 decision in April conflicts with comparable rulings elsewhere in Florida that a bruise alone is insufficient evidence that a paddling has degenerated into abuse, according to Ron Meyer, general counsel to the Florida Teaching Profession-National Education Association.
″But for the existence of a bruise (in the north Florida cases) there would be no indication of excessive force,″ Meyer said Tuesday.
The state HRS department denies Meyer’s allegation that it is singling out educators in its investigations.
″We don’t have a position on corporal punishment,″ Steve Konicki, an HRS spokesman, said. ″We do have a position on injury.″
Until this year, state statute required local school districts to include paddling as a disciplinary option. Earlier this spring, however, lawmakers agreed to leave the decision at the local level. Since Gov. Bob Martinez signed the legislation in late June, at least seven districts have banned paddling.
Winsett, principal of Stambaugh Middle School in the central Florida town of Auburndale and an administrator for 16 years, said he has never been a strong advocate of paddling but that many parents in his area support it as a disciplinary measure. He said he has paddled hundreds of youngsters.
A day or two after he paddled a teen-age boy who had gotten into trouble repeatedly, an HRS investigator asked Winsett if he had paddled the student and asked about bruises left on the student, Winsett said.
Weeks later, Winsett received a certified letter in June and found out that his name had been added to the list of confirmed child abuse cases.
″That was ridiculous,″ he said. ″I just don’t understand how anybody can do that in this country ... without a trial or anything.
″I thought every man was innocent until proven guilty. I never had a hearing, but when I get the letter it says I’m a child abuser,″ Winsett said.
Meyer said Tuesday that Florida’s school administrators are frightened by an HRS trend he says began in mid-1987.
″It’s had a real chilling effect,″ he said. ″It’s a severe penalty to be labeled a child abuser.″
But Konicki said that only educators who go too far have any need for concern.
″Teachers in general don’t feel under siege by HRS,″ he said.
Meyer estimated that 50 to 60 school employees throughout Florida are trying to remove their names from the registry. At least 10 exhausted administrative avenues and went to the courts. None of those cases was pursued by police, prosecutors or state licensing officials, he said.
Konicki said bruising is only one indicator of excessive force and added that it’s rare that a teacher is confirmed as a child abuser. In cases where it is confirmed, ″the bruises were not incidental but (were) severe deep bruises,″ he said.
″There are dozens and hundreds of teachers around this state that administer corporal punishment in a way that does not batter children,″ Konicki said.
Wayne Wallace, senior human services specialist for HRS, agreed.
″Every child bruises differently than any other child,″ Wallace said. ″What the investigator has to determine is whether or not that bruise is the result of excessive corporal punishment.″