A Florida sheriff stunned many of his constituents this week by appearing to endorse spanking students, his comments coming during a press conference in which county officials announced plans to tighten discipline in Brevard County schools.
“They know nothing is going to happen to them,” Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey said outside the county jail Monday, not long after the longtime county schools superintendent was fired and two conservative board members backed by the sheriff were sworn in.
“They know they’re not going to be given after-school detention,” he said, referring to unruly students. “They’re not going to be suspended, they’re not going to be expelled or, like in the old days, they’re not going to have the cheeks of their ass torn off for not doing right in class.”
In response to questions from NBC News, the local teachers union president and two members of the county school board all insisted there are no plans — that they know of — to reimpose corporal punishment or get rid of the county’s policy which specifically bars the practice at Thursday’s “emergency meeting.”
But Brevard County, which is located on the east coast of Florida and is best known as the home of the Kennedy Space Center, has already been the battleground on which some of the fiercest Covid and culture war skirmishes have been fought.
A former Brevard County school board member named Tina Descovich opposed to Covid restrictions went on to start the Moms for Liberty activist group in 2021 after she lost her seat to Jennifer Jenkins, a Democrat who supported mask requirements and other pandemic mandates.
Jenkins now sits on a county board that tilts conservative with the recent election of two new board members who had the backing of both Ivey and popular GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis.
And then there’s Ivey, who describes himself as America’s “most politically incorrect sheriff” and who has a high-profile public relations operation that includes a “Wheel of Fugitive” segment that appears on his official Facebook page.
Ivey is part of the constitutional sheriffs movement, which maintains that sheriffs are the ultimate authority on what is and what is not constitutional. And he is a Brevard County political powerbroker who helped get two Republicans, Megan Wright and Gene Trent, elected to the county school board.
Shortly after they were sworn in Nov. 22, Wright and Trent teamed up with school board chair Matt Susin to oust longtime superintendent Mark Mullins. They also pushed through a new requirement that bathrooms and locker rooms be segregated by biological sex, a move that critics have called anti-transgender.
The emergency disciplinary meeting is tentatively scheduled for 9 a.m. Thursday, which means that most teachers and students won’t be able to attend because they will be in school, Jenkins said.
It remains to be seen whether Ivey will be there or what kind of disciplinary measures his allies on the school board will push for at the meeting. But Wright appears to be a firm no on spanking students.
"I do not believe that corporal punishment belongs in public education," Wright said in an email to NBC News.
At Monday’s press conference outside the county jail, which Ivey posted on his official Facebook page, the sheriff announced a “brand new day” for school discipline.
“If you’re a little snot that’s coming to our classes to be disruptive, you might want to find some place else to go to school because we’re going to be your worst nightmare starting right now,” he said, flanked by Susin, State Attorney Phil Archer and Dolores Varney, representative for the school service workers union.
But NBC News got no response when it reached out to Tod Goodyear, the official spokesman for the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office, for more specifics, like whether Ivey would be pushing for spanking students.
Susin and Trent also could not be reached for comment.
There was agreement among the Brevard County school officials interviewed that disruptive students are a problem in the system. They also noted that the issue was addressed in a revamped school policy that was approved by the board in February, one that did not include resorting to corporal punishment.
“I don’t want to get into the politics of this, but what the sheriff said sounds like a bunch of fireworks,” said Brevard County School Board member Katye Campbell. “However, I am a conservative person. I agree we need to tighten discipline. We do have students who can’t learn because other students are disruptive.”
Anthony Colucci, president of the Brevard Federation of Teachers, echoed Campbell’s remarks.
“While there are those that only want to focus on the Sheriff’s crude language, we are focusing on the real issue which is out of control student behavior which is causing serious injuries to teachers, staff, and other students,” he said via email. “Corporal punishment is not one of the strategies BFT or any involved in revamping the plan is advocating.”
Still, Jenkins said, “corporal punishment is legal in Florida.”
“We have a policy that specifically forbids that,” she said. But so far, she said, they have not got any indication from Ivey or the other board members whether they plan to set aside that policy.
“I don’t know the reality of that,” Jenkins said.