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School Board mulls corporal punishment and discipline options

SEBRING — Corporal punishment continues to be a much discussed topic for the School Board of Highlands County with it being debated at length, along with other discipline issues, during a recent School Board workshop.

A couple of high school students, from the Superintendent’s student council, spoke first at the workshop with a Highlands Virtual School student saying that students in regular classrooms believe that school administrators should visit classrooms more often, which is effective in improving behavior and discipline.

Also, she said there shouldn’t be too many warnings. The overuse of warnings makes it like nothing will be done when a student misbehaves.

“We need more action on it,” the student said.

A second student also spoke on the suggestion for more administrators visiting classrooms. The atmosphere of the classroom changes when an administrator is present, he said.

The student also spoke about corporal punishment.

The student said corporal punishment is a relic from a past era, which is rarely used. The beliefs of society has changed to where is might cause public backlash if it ever was used.

He encouraged the board to rethink its stance on it and consider the opinions of society at large in the towns and in the schools.

The board has discussed corporal punishment at its recent meetings and while it is being removed from the 2022-23 Student Code of Conduct, the board is considering having it put back in the Code as a deterrent.

School Board Member Reese Martin has suggested that corporal punishment be put it back in the Code of Conduct, even if only for a deterrent.

“I think there are some areas in here where it could possibly be put in there just as an option, whether it is used or not,” he said.

Martin said he had asked for the number of discipline referrals that have been issued to students thus far this school year. There have been 7,223 total referrals in about 107 school days.

The majority of them are defiance of authority, disruptive behavior, and rules violations, he said.

“What we are doing and have been doing does not seem to be working,” Martin said. “We need to do something to help teachers that are there because administrators can’t be in every classroom as was suggested to make children behave.”

People have said out-of-school suspension does not seem like a punishment as grades can be made up and kids go home, he said.

Instead of principal discretion on many of the consequences, Martin said, he would like to see parental involvement in what their kids are doing.

Some of them mentioned possible parent conferences, for some of these serious infractions we need to make sure we get the parents involved, he said.

“We know we have a big problem with vaping and other issues going on in these schools,” Martin said. “We do have the option to give community service.”

He said there has to be something that is a punishment for the serious infractions.

District Director of Safety and Security Timothy Leeseburg said corporal punishment is legal in the state of Florida, but if a mark is left on an individual for 24 hours there will be an investigation into the incident.

School Board Member Isaac Durrance said administrators have been put on leave for that in the past and brought back in after the investigation was completed.

“The big question of the board, are we putting it back into the Code of Conduct as deterrent because kids will be fearful, but we have it in there or are we going to actually do it?”

School Board Chair Donna Howerton said, “As a parent when I was signing the book, I wanted to let my child know that it was available, I didn’t have a problem because I didn’t have a problem with being disciplined at school. I have had many who have gone to school with this process who said it made a difference in their life.”

Leeseburg said the principals and deans have disciplinary options such as to conference with the student and refer the student to the guidance office, school service work, classroom exclusion outside ISS and OSS (Individualized Study Services and Out of School Suspension).

Among the administrators that he has spoken with, none of them would support using corporal punishment on campus, he said.

School Board Member Nicole Radonski said she supports “principal discretion” in setting the consequences for infractions because the principal will know the circumstances and knows the students.

School Board Vice Chair Jan Shoop said as a parent she signed the piece of paper in front of her child.

“My youngest graduated in 2009,” she said. “We are in a different world right now. As a parent 100%. As a School Board member, I just don’t think it is a good idea to put the schools, the administrators and the deans in that situation.

The Code of Conduct workshop was a little over two hours long. The board takes no official action at workshops.

During the meeting, Radonski also noted the problem with vaping.

Leeseburg said when the School Board did the recent facilities walk-thru there were 83 students at the Academy at Youth Care Lane (district alternative program) with 49 of them there due to drug-related issues.

Martin said, “We can’t send anyone else to the Academy because it is full and the majority of it is from vaping and that is where I go back to if there was community service instead of a $25 fine.”

Coast now coming to Heartland

SEBRING — Nearly 20 years ago, Highlands County’s tourist development marketed the county for being within two hours of everything in Florida.

It referenced the county as a central location to drive to either coast or the big cities, but didn’t sell what the county had to offer.

A marketing shift had already begun when, in 2015, the Tourist Development Council hired Casey Hartt as lead marketing consultant.

Shortly after that, she and the TDC rebranded the county as “Visit Sebring,” a destination in itself, and that’s paid off.

Hartt has told county commissioners recently that Highlands now draws people from the coasts, with a full third of them — 33% — coming from the Tampa/St. Petersburg area.

Another 10.4% come from Miami/Fort Lauderdale, and the next highest market sources — Fort Myers/Naples and Orlando/Daytona Beach/Melbourne — provide 8.8% and 8.3% of visitors who drove in more than 30 miles.

West Palm Beach/Fort Pierce provides the only other large segment, 6.1%. The rest come from out of state, bringing 1-2% of out-of-towners from Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Detroit, New York City and Chicago.

“Atlanta has also been a big one, as far as traffic to our [Visit Sebring] website,” Hartt said.

Out-of-state markets have gained more ground recently, Hartt said, and have become even more of a focus than other Floridians.

As far as spending, out-of-state visitors spend about twice as much as in-state visitors, Hartt said. Out-of-state visitors will stay longer than in-state, who may have only driven in for the day, and will spend more money as a result.

“That’s why a lot of our events (attract) out-of-state visitors, versus the in-state visitors,” Hartt said.

Examples are the annual Spartan Race, which came in last December, and last year’s American Cornhole League Championship in May. Both will return this year, as will the Youth Lacrosse Tournament. The Spartan Race brought in 9,495 adult registered racers and 731 kid racers, along with 1,100 spectators and 383 volunteers.

Hartt noted for county commissioners during her recent presentation that part of what brought in big numbers was that December’s event included the Spartan Kids World Championship, which brought in youth competitors from 16 different countries.

Some of those families, the Highlands News-Sun learned, knew the “Sebring” name from the annual Le Mans series race, the 12 Hours of Sebring. Some did not know about the race at all, and only learned of it from coming to the Spartan Race.

Pre-race marketing, Hartt said, included 8.25 million views from paid digital ads and 212,428 views of the event page, paid by Spartan Race. Their social media reach, the total number of people who saw the content, was 293,881. The number of impressions, counting the number of times the content gets displayed, whether someone clicked on it or not, was 224,359.

Hartt said Spartan’s engagement with viewers of content, measured by how many times content came from users, such as likes, comments, shares and saves, was 12,141 for that event.

Part of that engagement included Commission Chair Chris Campbell touring the event, and posing for photos, as well as Miss Highlands County 2022 Taylor Leidel kicking off her shoes and doing some challenges, Hartt said.

Hartt said the TDC also has a contract now with Madden Media, since October, to improve digital presence through search engine marketing and search engine optimization, as well as digital storytelling and paid social media.

Paid social media, Hartt said, involves “prospecting” — finding people interested in travel to your type of destination — and “retargeting” by tracking and marketing to people who have visited a destination’s digital storefronts.

Biden's test: Sustaining unity as Ukraine war enters Year 2

WASHINGTON (AP) — One year ago, President Joe Biden was bracing for the worst as Russia massed troops in preparation to invade Ukraine.

As many in the West and even in Ukraine doubted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions, the White House was adamant: War was coming and Kyiv was woefully outgunned.

In Washington, Biden’s aides prepared contingency plans and even drafts of what the president would say should Ukraine’s capital quickly fall to Russian forces — a scenario deemed likely by most U.S. officials. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was offered help getting out of his country if he wanted it.

Yet as Russia’s invasion reaches the one-year mark, the city stands and Ukraine has beaten even its own expectations, buoyed by a U.S.-led alliance that has agreed to equip Ukrainian forces with tanks, advanced air defense systems, and more, while keeping the Kyiv government afloat with tens of billions of dollars in direct assistance.

For Biden, Ukraine was an unexpected crisis, but one that fits squarely into his larger foreign policy outlook that the United States and like-minded allies are in the midst of a generational conflict to demonstrate that liberal democracies such as the U.S. can out-deliver autocracies.

In the estimation of the White House, the war transformed what had been Biden’s rhetorical warnings — a staple of his 2020 campaign speeches — into an urgent call to action.

Now, as Biden prepares to travel to Poland to mark the anniversary of the war, he faces a legacy-defining moment.

“President Biden’s task is to make the case for sustained free world support for Ukraine,” said Daniel Fried, a U.S. ambassador to Poland during the Clinton administration and now a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council. “This is an important trip. And really, Biden can define the role of the free world in turning back tyranny.”

Biden administration officials are quick to direct primary credit for Ukraine’s staying power to the courage of its armed forces, with a supporting role to the Russian military’s ineptitude. But they also believe that without their early warnings and the massive support they orchestrated, Ukraine would have been all but wiped off the map by now.

Sustaining Ukraine’s fight, while keeping the war from escalating into a potentially catastrophic wider conflict with NATO, will go down as one of Biden’s enduring foreign policy accomplishments, they argue.

In Poland, Biden is set to meet with allies to reassure them of the U.S. commitment to the region and to helping Ukraine “as long as it takes.” It’s a pledge that is met with skepticism both at home and abroad as the invasion enters its second year, and as Putin shows no signs of retreating from an invasion that has left more than 100,000 of his own forces killed or wounded, along with tens of thousands of Ukrainian service members and civilians — and millions of refugees.

Biden’s job now is, in part, to persuade Americans — and a worldwide audience — that it’s more important than ever to stay in the fight, while cautioning that an endgame is unlikely to come quickly.

His visit to Poland is an opportunity to make the case to “countries that repudiate archaic notions of imperial conquest and wars of aggression about the need to continue to support Ukraine and oppose Russia,” said John Sullivan, who stepped down as the U.S. ambassador to Moscow in September. “We always preach, we are seeking to protect a rules-based international order. It’s completely done if Russia gets away with this.”

The U.S. resolve to stand up to Russia is also being tested by domestic concerns and economic uncertainty.

Forty-eight percent of the U.S. public say they favor the U.S. providing weapons to Ukraine, with 29% opposed and 22% saying they’re neither in favor nor opposed, according to a poll published this past week by the The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. It’s evidence of slipping support since May 2022, less than three months into the war, when 60% of U.S. adults said they were in favor of sending Ukraine weapons.

Further, Americans are about evenly divided on sending government funds directly to Ukraine, with 37% in favor and 38% opposed, with 23% saying neither, according to the AP-NORC poll.

This month, 11 House Republicans introduced what they called the “Ukraine fatigue” resolution urging Biden to end military and financial aid to Ukraine, while pushing Ukraine and Russia to come to a peace agreement. Meanwhile, the more traditionalist national security wing of the GOP, including just-announced 2024 presidential candidate Nikki Haley, a former U.N. envoy, has critiqued the pace of U.S. assistance, pressing for the quicker transfer of more advanced weaponry.

“Don’t look at Twitter, look at people in power,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell told the Munich Security Conference on Friday. “We are committed to helping Ukraine.”

But Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said he wants the president and his administration to impress on allies the need to share the burden as Americans grow weary of current levels of U.S. spending to assist Ukraine and Baltic allies.

Sullivan said he hears from Alaskans, “Hey, senator, why are we spending all this? And how come the Europeans aren’t?”

From the beginning of his administration, Biden has argued the world is at a crucial moment pitting autocracies against democracies.

The argument was originally framed with China in mind as America’s greatest economic and military adversary, and with Biden looking to reorient U.S. foreign policy toward the Pacific. The pivot toward Asia is an effort that each of his recent predecessors tried and failed to complete as war and foreign policy crises elsewhere shifted their attention.

With that goal, Biden sought to quickly end the U.S. military’s presence in Afghanistan seven months into his term. The end to America’s longest war was darkened by a chaotic withdrawal as 13 U.S. troops and 169 Afghan civilians looking to flee the country were killed by a bombing near Kabul’s international airport carried out by the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate.

U.S. officials say the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan has given the administration the bandwidth and resources to focus on assisting Ukraine in the first land war in Europe since World War II while putting increased focus on countering China’s assertive actions in the Indo-Pacific.

While the war in Ukraine caused large price increases in energy and food markets -– exacerbating rampant and persistent inflation — Biden aides saw domestic benefits to the president. The war, they argued, allowed Biden to showcase his ability to work across the aisle to maintain funding for Ukraine and showcase his leadership on the global stage.

However the months ahead unfold, it’s almost certain to be messy.

While Biden last year had to walk back a public call for regime change in Russia that he had delivered off the cuff from Poland just weeks after the war began, U.S. officials increasingly see internal discontent and domestic pressures on Putin as key to ending the conflict.

“So how does it end?” Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland said at an event this past week in Washington to mark the coming anniversary. “It ends with a safe, viable Ukraine. It ends with Putin limping back off the battlefield. I hope it ends eventually with a Russian citizenry, who also says, ‘That was a bad deal for us and we want a better future.’”

When Biden hosted Zelenskyy in Washington in December, the U.S. president encouraged him to pursue a “just peace” — a framing that the Ukrainian leader chafed against.

“For me as a president, ‘just peace’ is no compromises,” Zelenskyy said. He said the war would end once Ukraine’s sovereignty, freedom and territorial integrity were restored, and Russia had paid back Ukraine for all the damage inflicted by its forces.

“There can’t be any ‘just peace’ in the war that was imposed on us,” he added.

AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

Sebring man dies in crash south of Lake Placid

LAKE PLACID — A Sebring man died early Sunday morning when the car he was riding in was hit headon at the interstion of U.S. 27 and State Road 70.

According to Florida Highway Patrol reports, the car was driven by a 41-year-old Lake Placid woman. It was traveling north in the southbound inside lane of U.S. 27 just north of the SR 70 intersection. At the same time, at around 12:22 a.m., another car was traveling south in the same lane of traffic. The front left sides of both vehicles collided.

FHP reports that the northbound vehicle rotated, traveled off the roadway and came to rest on the west grass shoulder.

The driver was wearing a seat belt, however the passenger, a 69-year-old male, was not.

The second vehicle also traveled off the roadway and came to rest in the grass median. The driver, a 23-year-old male, and passenger, a 31-year-old male, both of Immokalee, were wearing their seat belts. The driver reportedly suffered minor injuries, while the passenger suffered serious injuries.

The crash remains under investigation.

FHP no longer releases names on their initial press reports. The year, make and model of the vehicles involved are also not included in that report.

Final reports with full details must be purchased once approved by all supervisors. The process can take from 7-70 days.

According to unofficial records kept by the Highlands News-Sun, this is the fifth traffic fatality on Highlands County roadways this year. This same time last year, the Highlands News-Sun had charted eight traffic deaths on county roads.

County to define 'legislative intent'

SEBRING — County Attorney Sherry Sutphen wants to make sure everyone knows what she’s doing for the County Commission, and what she’s not doing.

That especially holds true, she said, for something that she may have received for consideration, but has not yet started to review.

She wants to find a way to clarify that, both for the Highlands County Board of County Commissioners and for the public.

What happened recently is that the Sun ‘N Lake Board of Supervisors had voted to request a change in their charter. It would alter the representation of their board from two landowner-elected seats and three popularly-elected ones to all popular seats.

To do that, they had to have their attorney, David Schumacher, send the proposed ordinance changes to Sutphen for review before it goes in front of the County Commission.

At the commissioners’ last meeting, Sutphen said she had likely received the Sun ‘N Lake document via email, but had not yet started working on it, did not have it ready to present to the County Commission and was not prepared to report on whether or not Sun ‘N Lake can make that change.

Meanwhile, given that the supervisors had voted for it and their attorney had told landowners that it was in process, many residents in Sun ‘N Lake had the impression it was finalized.

As of yet, it has not yet come before the County Commission, and Sutphen still needs to review it, fully.

Another issue is a potential ordinance in the works for the Carter Creek Development. It’s scheduled to go before the board Tuesday.

Sutphen wants to start a new process on ordinances with the commission. She wants to be sure that the commissioners know what is going on and what isn’t. She’s proposing she put an item on the agenda, regularly, to say what is potentially under review.

That would then give commissioners a chance to give their “legislative intent” on any given matter.

“I like that idea,” said Commissioner Scott Kirouac. “It gives you, our legal department, direction.”

Any time Sutphen works on something, it spends taxpayer funds, Kirouac said. He thinks that the county commission needs to know what those items are, and to let her know if they want her to spend that time.

In answer to a question from Commissioner Kevin Roberts, Sutphen said some ordinances will be very specific “right at the get-go,” but others may be more general. It really depends on the situation, she said.

Commissioners agreed, by consensus, and now future meetings may have agenda items presented for legislative intent.