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Educators Balk as Paddlers Put on Child-Abuse List

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A Florida law aimed at tracking child abuse is also unfairly stigmatizing school officials who legally administer corporal punishment to students, a number of educators in the state have charged in recent months.

Since 1971, state officials have kept a confidential listing of the names of those found to have abused children. Two years ago child-care agencies, including schools, were allowed access to the registry, and school administrators welcomed it as a tool for screening job applicants.

The problem, say officials of the state teachers' union and others, is that the names of several teachers and principals have been placed on the list as a result of their attempts to enforce school discipline in accordance with district policy.

School corporal punishment is legal in Florida, although a new statute that went into effect in July gives districts the option of banning it.

Some critics of the current policy contend that the registry is being used by members of the public opposed to corporal punishment in order to pressure districts to ban the use of paddling in schools.

Discipline or Abuse?

The handful of educators--the exact number is not known--who have been listed in connection with disciplinary incidents argue that it is wrong to jeopardize their future job prospects by putting them into a category that includes murderers and molesters.

"There I am on this list with people who have killed children," said Gerald Winsett, an Auburndale middle-school principal who is currently struggling to get his name removed. "They are treating us the same as they would someone who does terrible things to kids."

State officials contend, though, that school punishments sometimes do constitute abuse.

According to state health officials, paddling that results in a bruise that lasts longer than 24 hours is excessive, and must be reported and investigated as an abuse case.

"But it's not so much the bruise as it is what caused the bruise," said B.J. Cosson, director of Florida's protective-services system, which includes the registry.

"Corporal punishment in itself is not abuse," he said. "We have to look at the circumstances involved."

Investigating Allegations

When an allegation of abuse is made, the investigation into the circumstances of the case is conducted by a district representative of the state health and rehabilitative-services department, Mr. Cosson said.

The investigator must personally interview all those named in the initial complaint, including the alleged child abuser.

State procedure requires that a letter be sent automatically to the alleged abuser as soon as the charge is confirmed, and his or her name is entered on the registry, Mr. Cosson said.

Those listed on the registry are given 30 days to challenge the designation.

There are four levels of appeal of such an action, Mr. Cosson explained, beginning with the health department and ending with the state circuit court.

Mr. Cosson said that 820 public-school employees were investigated by the health department for possible abuse during the 1988-89 school year. Of those, 571 cases were disel10lmissed, while in 173 cases enough evidence was found to show that abuse had occurred, but not enough to list any individuals as abusers.

In 71 cases, abuse was confirmed and the alleged violator listed. Five more such cases were found in private schools.

Officials said they did not know, however, how many of the 71 cases involved discipline-related incidents by teachers and administrators.

'Three Swats With a Board'

Mr. Winsett argued both that there was no foundation to the abuse charge that led to his name being listed, and that state officials did not follow proper procedures in adding him to the registry.

Mr. Winsett was listed after he disciplined a 13-year-old male student in May.

While acknowledging that he did paddle the boy, Mr. Winsett emphasized that he had first obtained permission from the boy's parents, and that the punishment inflicted was not excessive.

No criminal charges were filed, he noted, and the boy's parents never complained to school officials about the incident.

The initial complaint, he said, was made by a friend of the boy's family.

"I'm not a big proponent of corporal punishment," he said. "But I don't feel that three swats with a board--in accordance with the law--is abuse."

Moreover, authorities conducted only a cursory investigation into his role in the incident, Mr. Winsett claimed. He recalled that his interview consisted of a 10-minute "talk" with the district representative.

The principal also said that he was not notified of his status as an alleged child abuser until after his name had been placed on the registry.

Mr. Winsett said he had appeared before a hearing of the health department's review board last month and expected to get an opinion within two weeks.

If his name is not dropped from the registry, he said, he will continue the appeal process to the state courts, if necessary.

Three Cases Pending

James T. Barrett, a spokesman for the Florida Teaching Profession-National Education Association, said that several such cases, involving both teachers and administrators, have gone through the courts. At least three cases are pending, he said.

"Often, the state does not follow procedure properly and people have to go to court to get their names expunged from the registry," he said.

Last year, the teachers' union and other education groups tried unsuccessfully to have the procedures changed through legislation that would have included more opportunities for investigations and appeals before a name was placed on the registry.

In some cases, Mr. Barrett said, teachers have not been notified that their names have been listed, and they have learned the news during a job interview.

A listing on the registry does not necessarily prevent a teacher from getting a job, Mr. Barrett said, but only because school boards "know how this works."

Mr. Winsett noted that his district has banned the use of corporal punishment temporarily, pending the result of his appeal.

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