education, memories, mental health, true crime

Principal in Florida school “caught with her pants down”…

Before I get started… anyone who hit this blog because of the expression, “caught with her pants down” should know that this is not going to be a perverted post. So if you came here because your mind is in the gutter, you probably ought to keep scrolling. When I write the principal was “caught with her pants down”, I mean she was caught doing something wrong while unaware or unprepared. It’s an idiom that happens to suit this particular news story, which I read first in the Washington Post. TMZ also ran the story, along with an accompanying video.

In this case, the principal is 37 year old Melissa Carter, of Central Elementary School in Clewiston, Florida. On April 13th, Carter took it upon herself to paddle a six year old kindergartner who had allegedly damaged a computer screen. The little girl’s mother, who doesn’t speak English and has not been identified, secretly recorded the incident, which happened right in front of her and 62 year old Cecilia Self, a school clerk who was there to interpret. The mother also said that Self’s interpretations of what was happening were inaccurate.

The girl’s mother and her husband are undocumented immigrants from Mexico and although the mom did not approve of her child being “beaten” with a wooden paddle, she felt powerless to stop it because she was afraid she would be reported to immigration authorities. Since the paddling, the girl has been transferred to a new school at her mother’s request. However, the girl has needed therapy; she cries often and doesn’t sleep. So the mother, despite being rightfully afraid of being deported, has reported the incident. Now, Melissa Carter may be facing criminal charges. It’s important to note that Florida does allow corporal punishment in schools. However, Hendry County school system, where Central Elementary School is located, does not.

Having watching the videos of the scolding and subsequent paddling, I tend to agree that it was less of a spanking and more of a beating. Carter rears back and hits the child with gusto. And when the child instinctively raises her hands to protect herself, the principal yells at her to put her hands down, then loudly berates her. I can understand why the child is now traumatized. It was hard for me to watch and listen to Carter speak– although in Carter’s defense, I don’t know if this incident was a first offense or the child was a repeat visitor to Carter’s office. Regardless, she had no right to hit the child, if only because that method of punishment is not allowed in her school district.

Some regular readers of my blog may remember that I had an unfortunate experience with being paddled in school when I was in the fourth grade in Gloucester, Virginia, which in the early 80s, was still very rural. During the 1981-82 school year, corporal punishment was still allowed in Virginia. That year, I had a young male teacher who was very popular and considered “cute”. I’ll call him Mr. A.

Mr. A. was memorable in many ways. I actually liked him a lot, because he was creative and a big believer in having fun. He used to encourage us to exercise and would take us out to run around the playground or play games– this was besides physical education class. He also had Armenian ancestry, which I found interesting even back then. I didn’t know that in 1995, I’d move to Armenia myself for two years. In the early 80s, Armenia was still part of the Soviet Union.

I remember when I was assigned Mr. A., he had a reputation for “whaling” kids. He actually called it whaling, because his paddle was shaped like a whale. And when he decided, rather arbitrarily, to hit children, he would do it in the front of the class, which was very humiliating. It happened to me once, for a reason that I think was completely inappropriate. Forty years later, I still haven’t forgotten it. It still pisses me off, because he had no right to strike me for any reason, let alone the reason he did. Below is part of the post I wrote in 2013 about the day I got a “whaling”.

…I was generally a pretty good kid and, in his class, I was one of the better students.  But one day, he had asked us to exchange papers so we could grade them.  I whispered to the person in front of me that mine might be messy.  Next thing I know, Mr. A. was calling me up to the front of the room to put my hands on the blackboard and bend over so my butt stuck out.  He made some inappropriate comment about how he had a good target, then proceeded to hit me with his whale paddle.

I don’t remember the paddling being painful.  It was just very humiliating.  To be paddled in front of a bunch of nine year olds is really embarrassing, especially when a lot of them tease you to start with.  I remembering being very upset… like I had been publicly betrayed by a trusted friend.  Moreover, I really didn’t think my offense warranted a paddling.

I went home still upset and my mom asked what was wrong.  I told her what happened.  She was upset about it, but my dad said I must have deserved it.  My dad was very pro corporal punishment and that was pretty much the only method he ever used to discipline me.  I still have a lot of lingering anger toward him for that reason.  He would get angry and hit me, sometimes when he was out of control.  Granted, I was a “handful”, but I was basically a good kid who caused little trouble, other than occasional disrespect and mischief. 

Paddling in public schools was legal in Virginia in the early 1980s; it has been banned in public schools since 1989, but is still allowed in private schools.  And maybe there were a few kids who deserved to be paddled, though I think that would have been better done in private instead of in front of their peers.  I don’t think what I did justified a public humiliation… and obviously many years later I still remember it.  I think if a teacher ever hit a child of mine, I would go ballistic.

I think most of all, though, I was disappointed in my mom.  She objected to what Mr. A had done, but did nothing about it.  She just went along with what my dad said, as usual. 

The following school year, Mr. A. ended up moving to the next school with us because he got a job teaching P.E.  He was in my school system the whole time I was growing up.  I guess I eventually forgave him, but I never forgot and I think I lost some respect for him that day, too. 

Later that year, Mr. A. had us outside playing soccer. For some reason, he decided to play the game with us. He was a pretty big guy with a powerful kick. At one point, he kicked the soccer ball and it happened to hit me in the stomach, knocking the wind out of me. I was actually unconscious for a minute and woke up with my head between my knees. That incident was also very embarrassing and painful for me. I remember Mr. A., who was originally from upstate New York, saying “Sore-y” (sorry, but with a Canadian accent) and sending me to the nurse to lie down for a bit.

Mr. A. was also notorious for playing a game he called “slaughter ball”. Basically, it was like dodge ball, but kids would line up against a wall as other kids and Mr. A. himself would throw the ball at them as hard as they could. I don’t remember playing slaughter ball with Mr. A., but I knew people who had him for P.E. class and did experience that. Having been both “paddled” and knocked unconscious by him, I can believe he was an enthusiastic player. Too bad my parents didn’t care enough about me to complain.

Because of my experiences with corporal punishment, both at home and that one time at school, I’m pretty much against its use as a disciplinary tool. I definitely don’t think it’s appropriate for school officials– teachers or principals– to be hitting children that aren’t theirs, particularly if the parents haven’t granted permission. Given the mother’s reaction to her child’s discipline session, I’m guessing that she did not give Carter permission to discipline her child in such a violent and disrespectful manner. I think if that had been my child, I would have raised holy hell… but sadly, I suspect that if I had been the mother in that case, Carter would not have dared to use corporal punishment. I’m not an undocumented immigrant and I speak perfect English. But at least she didn’t do it in front of a classroom full of the child’s peers… On the other hand, mom videoed this session and gave it to the press, so in essence, her daughter was just paddled in front of the whole world.

Although I remember still liking Mr. A. when I was a child, that was probably because a lot of men I respected (back then) hurt me physically, mentally, or emotionally. I never considered what they did abuse until years later, when I crashed into depression and crippling anxiety, told my story to a licensed psychologist, and was informed that I actually had been abused. In fact, one of my neighbors sexually abused me by exposing me to pornography when I was about nine or ten years old. I started thinking about all of this stuff I had compartmentalized for years and my mindset really changed. My father’s go to punishment for me was spanking, slapping, and yelling. He continued to feel free to do it until I finally told him, as an adult, that he had no right. And then I threatened to have him arrested.

In April 2016, there was another well-publicized case about a child who was spanked at school by his principal. That case, which took place in Georgia, also involved a Hispanic child and a mother who disapproved, but went along with it because she was afraid of law enforcement. The mother, Shana Marie Perez, claimed she signed a consent form under duress to allow her then five year old son, Thomas, to be paddled for spitting and almost hitting another student. Perez was told that if the principal was not permitted to paddle Thomas, Thomas would be suspended. Perez had been arrested two weeks prior to the incident on truancy charges. She had been booked into jail and released. If Thomas got suspended and missed more school days, Perez feared that she would go to jail.

In the 2016 video Perez took of her son being spanked, viewers can see administrators trying to get Thomas to bend over for his spanking. Viewers can also hear him begging not to be spanked and calling for his mommy. The teachers try to hold him down, but he continues to struggle, putting his hands over his bottom and fighting. Trust has no doubt been broken at this point as one of the teachers says, “He’s going to get a spanking. We have all the time in the world.”

Brent Probinsky, the attorney for the Florida mother and her daughter, says the girl’s mom calls him twice a day because the child has been “terrorized” by what happened. She cries and doesn’t sleep. To be honest, watching that video, hearing that principal’s harsh tone and threatening words, and most of all, seeing her really rear back and hit the girl with a wooden paddle, makes me believe that the child was traumatized. Probinsky insists that this was aggravated battery and he’s hoping that Florida officials will strip the principal and the clerk of their licenses so they will no longer be able to work in Florida schools. At this point, both women are on leave.

It occurs to me that if an adult hits another adult, a case could easily be made for assault and battery charges. But for some reason, many people think it’s perfectly fine for adults to hit children. And children are never in a good position to defend themselves against adults. I stop short of saying that corporal punishment is never appropriate, but I definitely don’t think it should be something that is done in schools. At best, I think it’s a last resort solution that should be done very rarely. I’m not sure what will happen to Melissa Carter or Cecilia Self, but I do think it would be appropriate if both of them were permanently relieved of their positions.

I just don’t think that hitting children is the best way to get their respect. When I was a child and got hit by my father, all I remember is hating him and wanting to either hit him back or kill him. I don’t remember him ever taking the time to talk to me about things I did wrong. I just remember his face turning red, veins popping out, and being turned over his knee while he took out all of his frustrations. And now that I’m in my late 40s, I still don’t have a very high opinion of him, even though I know he wasn’t all bad. The truth is, those discipline sessions were not actually very disciplined at all. When he died, I didn’t shed many tears… and to this day, I lament the fact that he treated me the way he did. Maybe it’s a blessing I didn’t have children of my own to fuck up.

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