A review by the State Attorney’s Office has found that a Central Elementary School principal in Clewiston did not commit a crime when she paddled a 6-year-old in front of the child’s mother.
Principal Melissa Carter and Cecilia Self, a clerk at the school, were recorded by the child’s mother as Carter spanked the child with a wooden paddle three times.
The Office of the State Attorney’s Office for the Twentieth Judicial Circuit, which covers Hendry County, released a memo late Friday.
The paddling occurred on April 13 after the child damaged a computer.
According to the memo, the child’s mother gave an initial account of the incident to the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office on April 14.
The memo called the child’s mother’s credibility into question after Carter and Self told authorities that the child’s mother said her daughter was damaging things at her home too, but she was afraid to discipline her because her daughter threatened to call police and the Department of Children and Families on her.
Self said the child’s mother requested the school spank her daughter, but she was told she needed to be present for the spanking.
According to both Carter and Self, the child’s mother went to the school and made the request.
In a statement to WINK News, the family’s attorney Brent Probinksy said he was disappointed by the decision to not prosecute.
“The family and I as their lawyer are very disappointed that the State Attorney, Amira Fox, did not criminally charge the school principal and her assistant who savagely beat this innocent 6-year-old with a paddle for merely scratching a computer,” Probinksy said. “The State Attorney, Ms. Fox, in our estimation failed to hold accountable those who violate their responsibility to educate and nurture school children under their care, and instead, physically and emotionally abuse them.”
An interview of the child was redacted from the memo released by the state attorney’s office.
The memo states the child’s mother told Hendry deputies that she went to the school to witness the discipline, but there was a language barrier that caused her to be “confused,” and that she “did not understand the process correctly.”
The Clewiston Police Department attempted to speak with the child’s mother again, but she did not return phone calls.
Her attorney, Brent Probinsky, returned calls instead.
The State Attorney’s Office memo states the child’s mother’s statements to the media about “sacrificing” her daughter indicate that she knew the girl would be paddled.
Additionally, “a parent has a right to use corporal punishment to discipline their children, and similarly has the right to consent that others do so on their behalf,” the State Attorney’s Office memo states.
Corporal punishment is legal in Florida but is not allowed in Hendry County schools, so we asked an expert when corporal punishment becomes child abuse.
Criminal Defense Attorney Robert Foley says the punishment established has to be reasonable to correct the behavior — in this case damaging a piece of computer equipment.
Child abuse is an intentional injury on a child.
“When they state attorney’s office was considering its filing decision that it reviewed the evidence that it had and that it was reasonable,” Foley said. “It is authorized by law, and what happened, at least in my eyes in the video, was not a crime.”
But Foley says, since the Hendry County District Schools, doesn’t allow what we’ve seen in the now viral video, the two school staff members could still face disciplinary action from the district.
Probinsky told the State Attorney’s Office he believed the paddling to be aggravated battery, but prosecutors disagreed.
“It is clear using a paddle to spank a child is not likely to cause death or great bodily harm,” the memo states.
Additionally, the memo states Florida law is clear that spanking a child does not amount to child abuse.
WINK News continues to reach out to both the school principal, the clerk and the school district for response and updates, but we did not hear back from either of the parties Friday.