Hendry County principal’s attorney speaks for first time about paddling controversy

Published: June 7, 2021 6:09 PM EDT
Updated: June 7, 2021 6:12 PM EDT

For the first time, we’re hearing from the attorney of a Clewiston school principal seen paddling a child as punishment.

The video of the paddling was first brought to light by WINK News in late April and gained international attention.

Corporal punishment is legal in Florida, but state law leaves it up to each county to decide. The Hendry County School District banned the practice in 2016.

On Friday, we explained that Melissa Carter, the principal of Central Elementary School, filed a complaint saying the child’s mother illegally recorded the spanking, but the student’s family lawyer said it’s legal.

WINK News Reporter Val Simpson sat down Monday for an exclusive interview with Carter’s attorney for their side of things.

It’s a video that’s hard to forget, showing Carter hitting a 6-year-old student with a wooden paddle. The child’s mother sent us the video. Did she record it legally?

Carter’s lawyer, Steven Ramunni, said she didn’t.

“When you take things out of context, you can spin it into whatever you want to make it into,” he said.

Florida is a two-party consent state, meaning you generally can’t record someone’s voice without their permission. Brent Probinsky, the child’s family lawyer, told us Friday there are two exceptions.

“That is when you think a criminal act or evidence of a criminal act may be occurring, and here, it’s a battery of this child the mother was recording. And second, when the speakers have no expectation of privacy, it’s not prohibited from recording them without their permission, such as in a public space, public place. In this instance, we have a public school, not a private setting,” he explained.

Ramunni said Probinsky misinterpreted the law.

“An expectation of privacy could be in a lot of different places. Obviously, this was a closed-door, disciplinary meeting that was held under the auspices of the Florida statutes, so I would disagree with his assessment,” Ramunni said.

The Hendry County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the child’s mother after the principal accused her of illegally recording the video. When we spoke with the mother in April, she told us she felt that recording the incident was her only option because she’s undocumented. She maintains she didn’t explicitly consent to the paddling.

Carter’s lawyer said the mother did give her permission, but there is no physical evidence.

“I haven’t seen everything yet… to my knowledge there’s no, perse, signed form, but it was the mother who requested the paddling to begin with, and as you, if you listen to the entire recording.”

WINK News published a full transcript of the video online, reviewed by three Spanish speakers. Our team did not find evidence of the mother giving explicit consent. We asked Ramunni if a Spanish speaker in his office reviewed the video. He said he read Carter’s sworn written statement.

Last month, the State Attorney’s Office decided not to press charges against Carter. On several occasions, we’ve asked if the SAO had a Spanish speaker review the video, but we haven’t gotten a response.

Ramunni said he doesn’t think Carter will lose her education license. The departments of Education and Children and Families are investigating. We’re still waiting for those results.