Collier school board's Jerry Rutherford says he wants to bring back corporal punishment
Newly elected Collier County school board member Jerry Rutherford wants to bring corporal punishment back to district classrooms, he said the morning after Tuesday's election.
He added that disabled students' behavior in particular is "out of control."
Additionally, he said he'd like to see fewer "rights" for LGBTQ students — or the same extended to religious students who want to practice religion in school.
Jory Westberry, who lost her school board seat to Rutherford, said his views on corporal punishment, LGBTQ students and religion in schools would "put something so pervasively wrong in schools."
Florida allows corporal punishment in public schools as long as the district allows it.
"First of all," she said, "if (Florida) allows corporal punishment, Collier County does not."
"Second, students with handicaps are entitled to a free public education without retribution because of their behavior. That's why we have behavior specialists who work with students, parents and teachers to enable them to have a more effective, productive experience in school," Westberry said.
Westberry was one of several who spoke out against Rutherford's priorities.
Rutherford won the District 1 seat away from longtime teacher, administrator and school board member Westberry in the 2022 election with a strong 65.4% of the vote to Westberry's 34.6%.
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After speaking on myriad issues at school board meetings countless times for more than 35 years, Rutherford told the Naples Daily News in July he decided he didn't want to be on the outside looking in anymore, so he joined the school board race.
This was his first time running for any elected position, he said.
Rutherford was endorsed by the Collier County Republican Executive Committee, which endorsed all three challengers to the school board. All of them won their races.
As a devout Christian, he's fought to distribute Bibles in schools and to institute prayer at school board meetings. He has also protested Naples's LGBTQ Pride festival, specifically speaking out against drag shows.
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A veteran of the Air Force, Rutherford has worked in sales and construction and owned a painting business in the Naples area for more than 20 years. He also served as a substitute teacher in the district for three years.
Florida Citizens Alliance, a conservative education nonprofit headquartered on Marco Island, congratulated Rutherford, as well as the two other challengers Wednesday via email.
"This win of all three seats is a tremendous victory for the 48,000 kids in Collier schools, their parents, and grandparents, as it now gives a clear conservative majority over a previous left-leaning school board," Florida Citizens Alliance marketing manager Moise Stael Dantes wrote. "The delivery of quality academics while maintaining the principle of liberty can now become real."
The 'board of education'
Rutherford's stated positions changed dramatically before and after his election.
In July, he told the Naples Daily News his priorities were to ensure proper education that helps everyone succeed, improve safety and mental health for students and teachers, and address budgetary concerns.
But Wednesday morning, reached by phone, Rutherford said he has a five-point agenda he'd like to implement, including "mental and physical discipline," or physical punishment of children in Collier's public schools.
"I only went to the principal's office one time when I was in school and that was when they used the 'board of education,' if you get what I'm saying," Rutherford said.
Rutherford added that disabled students are not in control and get away with too much. He read an article by a California teacher that said he left teaching because his disabled students were swearing and otherwise misbehaving, and he couldn't hold them accountable.
According to a 2021 analysis by the Education Commission of the States, which tracks education policies, Florida is one of at least 18 states that allows corporal punishment in public schools as long as the district allows it. According to the National Association of State Boards of Education, Florida does not require parental permission, only written parental notification after the fact.
Currently, Collier County prohibits corporal punishment. According to school board policy 5630, “the use of corporal punishment, defined in Florida statute as the use of physical force or physical contact for disciplinary purposes, is prohibited.”
Furthermore, Florida Statute 1003.573 states that disabled students can only be physically restrained if there is an imminent risk of serious injury or death to the student or others and only once all positive behavioral strategies have been exhausted.
Jackie Stephens, CEO of the Children’s Advocacy Center in Collier County, said she is “alarmed” to hear a school board member wants to bring back corporal punishment to the classroom.
"It can be detrimental to the children," Stephens said. "There's no studies that really indicate that spanking is beneficial. It can actually lead to worse behavior and aggression."
Stephens said many countries have outlawed the spanking of children, even by their own parents. In the United States, many organizations have registered as a "No Hit Zone," which means they do not condone hitting of any kind.
"There's a lot of places that are becoming no hit zones, like the Children's Advocacy Center and hospitals. I think at school would be a good place not to hit children."
Rutherford's agenda also focuses on "respect," he said. "There needs to be respect for ourselves, for others, and for authority."
In that vein, he said he believed people are being indoctrinated into supporting LGBTQ rights, and "when it comes to indoctrination, I will not put up with that," he said.
Rutherford added that some legislators had passed bills he believes extends the rights of LGBTQ people beyond normal rights.
"I'm all for equal rights, but I'm not for special rights," he said.
For example, he said, an LGBTQ student group in Collier County gave teachers a sticker to put on their doors with a rainbow that says "safe zone." One teacher, he said, refused to put it up.
He did not elaborate further on what rights LGBTQ people have that others do not.
According to The Safe Zone Project, which gives trainings that allow people to learn about LGBTQ identities as well as examine prejudices and biases, the words "safe zone" typically communicate that the person is an ally of the LGBTQ community, has gone through a Safe Zone training, or is trying to communicate support.
"I don't have a problem with that, but it should extend to sectarians," Rutherford said.
"If you're going to have a secular symbol, you have to give a religious one," he said. "What if we gave teachers a sticker with a cross that said 'saved zone?' We have religious rights, and we have personal rights."
GLSEN, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting LGBTQ students through policy writing and advocacy, said elected leaders and elected school leaders have a responsibility to protect all young people, including LGBTQ youth.
"Queer students in Florida, especially those of color and those who are trans and nonbinary, are being cruelly targeted by extremists," said GLSEN executive director Melanie Willingham-Jaggers. "They are facing a hostile climate amid curriculum censorship laws and have been repeatedly subject to political attacks. Florida's students deserve so much better from the adult politicians who are supposed to support them. This kind of anti-LGBTQ+ fear mongering and misinformation from any school leader is unacceptable."
“We are absolutely saddened by his agenda,” said Naples Pride president Cori Craciun. “LGBT kids' rights have been taken away by the Parental Rights Bill, and the Florida Medical Board, which banned (gender-affirming) care for transgender minors. ... The 'safe zones' are there to protect these children. They are often the only place these children know there is a supportive adult they can reach out to.”
Religion in public schools
Federal law on Bibles in public schools is derived from 1963 Supreme Court case Abingdon v. Schempp, which draws a distinction between devotional reading and the objective study of religion.
In short, while religious texts like the Bible are allowed in public schools for the purpose of studying, what is not allowed is devotion or reading from the Bible as religious practice.
Rutherford added he wants to see "textbooks that are free from bias, censorship and rewritten history," as well as "morals and ethics in school."
He said he planned to review all new textbooks and would flag anything he saw as dubious or biased. He did not specify what he considered to qualify as biased or rewritten history.
Rutherford was also eager to see a civics class reinstated in the curriculum, where students would study the Constitution and the Bill of Rights per Gov. Ron DeSantis' recent policy.
But Rutherford said he felt the government has gone too far in other ways, such as by forcing students and teachers to wear a mask in 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and by requiring military personnel to get vaccinated against the virus that has killed more than 1 million people across the U.S.
As a former airman, he expressed frustration by that.
"They're saying no (to the vaccine), and they're getting thrown out for that," he said.
He noted that while Collier Public Schools required masking early in the pandemic, Mason Classical Academy, a local charter school, did not, which he believes better exemplified respect for students' rights. Collier should follow Mason's example, he said.
Education reporter Nikki Ross contributed to this article. Kate Cimini is an investigative journalist covering Florida. Share your story at (239) 207-9369 or firstname.lastname@example.org.