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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Getting pulled by the ear for misbehaving in class or laying across a teacher's legs for a spanking may seem like a relic of the past. But 19 states still allow public schools to paddle students who behave badly. According to the Center for Effective Discipline, most incidents take place in rural parts of the Mountain and Southern states, where such punishment is something of a tradition. Well, now in Florida, a mother plans to sue a school district because her 5-year-old son was paddled without her permission. WLRN-Miami Herald reporter Sarah Gonzalez went to small-town Florida to find out why schools want the right to spank students.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: There are some parts of Florida where getting spanked at school on your butt with a wooden or a fiberglass board isn't a big deal.

COLE LONG: You put your hands on the desk and look forward.

CLAIRE GINN: You just get hit two or three times and then it's over with.

LUCAS MIXON: I've been getting them since about first grade. It's just regular.

GONZALEZ: That's Cole Long, Claire Ginn and Lucas Mixon - middle and high school students in North Florida, where almost every county has laws on the books allowing the paddling of students. Public schools are the only public institution where hitting is allowed - not in prisons, hospitals, mental institutions or the military. The most recent data shows about 3,600 students were spanked in Florida in 2010. Efforts to ban school corporal punishment statewide failed this year. And that's just fine for parents like Bud Glover of Bonifay, Florida.

BUD GLOVER: I got my butt beat. I know what's right and wrong and my children are going to know what's right and wrong.

GONZALEZ: Bonifay is a small town in the Florida Panhandle 15 miles from the Alabama border where tradition is valued and Eddie Dixson, principal at Holmes County High School, is a traditionalist when it comes to spanking misbehaving students.

EDDIE DIXSON: (Unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF PADDLE HITTING HAND)

DIXSON: That kind of thing. It doesn't really hurt. It's just the sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF PADDLE HITTING HAND)

GONZALEZ: It's a wooden board and it sure looks like it hurts. Picture a really short rowboat paddle, a rectangle with a handle about 16 inches long, five inches wide and half an inch thick.

Students at the high school get paddled about twice a week for doing things like...

LONG: Oh, doing stupid stuff. You know, throwing papers, throwing pencils. A couple times for cussing and backtalking. I used to be a really wild child.

GONZALEZ: That's Cole Long, a senior at Holmes County High. He says the spankings teach students discipline and respect, but every once in a while, a parent from one of these small towns will say, that's my job, like Tenika Jones of Levy County.

Last year, the principal at Joyce Bullock Elementary sent home a waiver asking parents for permission to paddle students. Jones didn't sign it, but her son, Geirrea Bostick, was paddled on his second week of preschool, anyway. Geirrea says the principal spanked him twice for slapping another boy on the school bus.

GEIRREA BOSTICK: He said - take my jacket off. Then when I take my jacket off, they spanked me on my booty. Yeah. It was hard and I cried, then I say, sorry. Then we went on the bus, then I cried all the way home. It was really hard.

GONZALEZ: The paddling left welts on Geirrea's bottom and his mom was outraged.

TENIKA JONES: If I would have hit my son - I hit him, I would have been in jail. I would have been on the news. I would have been messed up, trying to get my child back. How she hit my son, she whipped him up and, to me, that's child abuse.

GONZALEZ: Geirrea's mom is in the process of suing the Levy County School District for paddling her son without her permission, but state law does not require schools to get parental consent. The school's principal and the school district would not comment because they're in pre-litigation, but the principal has said that permission slips are only a courtesy.

Many studies on school corporal punishment show paddling does not deter kids from misbehaving. Students who are paddled once are often repaddled, but supporters argue that paddling punishes students and keeps them in school because the alternative for students with bad behavior would be suspension.

Willie Williams agrees. He's principal at Madison County Central Elementary and Middle School. The only problem is he can't bring himself to administer the punishment and, when others do it...

WILLIE WILLIAMS: I have to walk out. I'm a softie, really, at heart. I actually have to walk out because I just...

GONZALEZ: As principal, Williams could ban the practice.

WILLIAMS: If I believed in that, but I am a part of the community.

GONZALEZ: And he says this community supports school corporal punishment and, in rural Florida, that's not likely to change anytime soon. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Gonzalez in Miami.

BLOCK: That story is part of the State Impact Project. State Impact is a collaboration between NPR and member stations examining the effect of state policy on people's lives.

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