A newly elected Christian nationalist on the Collier County School Board in Naples, Florida says he wants to bring back physical abuse in school, use corporal punishment on kids with disabilities whom he says are “out of control,” and make sure LGBTQ students have fewer rights.
Jerry Rutherford isn’t hiding any of this. He told the Naples Daily News exactly what he hoped to accomplish despite an earlier platform of improving safety, providing mental health care for students and teachers, and dealing with the budget:
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.
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.
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.
To summarize: A religious bigot with no experience or understanding of the education system—whose résumé includes the irrelevant claim that he’s been a Christian for “60+ years”—ran for the public school board because he believes every bit of right-wing propaganda injected into his veins and has every intention to destroy what makes those schools so important for students. Especially ones with physical disabilities.
He was boosted in his campaign by the Collier County Republican Executive Committee (which endorsed him), voted onto the school board in a race that wasn’t even close, and publicly congratulated by the right-wing Florida Citizens Alliance. It’s not just one guy either. Rutherford and two other conservative activists successfully pushed out three sitting members to win a majority on the five-member board.
There’s no telling how much damage they’ll cause in a state where Republicans practically have carte blanche to do anything they want.
Rutherford isn’t new to the world of conservative Christian activism. In the past, when he was president of the ministry World Changers of Florida, he sued the same school board for not allowing him to hand out bibles to students. The two sides eventually compromised and Rutherford’s group was allowed to leave bibles on an unmanned table for anyone to pick up. (Ironically, years later, that decision was cited by Satanists to justify setting up their own table of materials in a different district.)
Even in a video announcing his candidacy, Rutherford blamed “secular humanism” for destroying schools, as if a lack of Christian indoctrination in school somehow led to lower standardized test scores.
But it’s Rutherford’s open cruelty that’s getting attention now. That’s because Florida law permits corporal punishment if a district like Collier County supports it. Parents in the district voted for Christian school board members who could realistically enact new rules allowing teachers to physically hurt their own kids. That includes disabled students who may not even be acting out on purpose.
It’s raising all kinds of red flags for people who actually study this kind of abuse:
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.”
It doesn’t help that the disrespect he’s already showing certain students is exactly the sort of treatment that leads some kids to act out.
Beyond the beatings, Rutherford also wants to use civics textbooks that promote a white-washed pro-Christian fictional history, the sort Gov. Ron DeSantis has been pushing on teachers across the state.
And, of course, he opposes the kind of mask mandates that protected the health of students, teachers, and the community during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
How many decent parents chose not to vote in this local race? And how many voted for this bloc of right-wing extremists without fully knowing what they were getting in return? The future Collier County School Board, including Rutherford, has made it clear they are mostly interested in perpetuating their own agenda and biases, not doing what’s best for children.
It’s a frightening prospect and the sort of thing happening in more school boards nationwide because too many parents just assume everything’s fine and don’t pay attention to (or vote in) these kinds of races. Conservative Christians, on the other hand, usually take them very seriously. Naples knows that now. And they’re going to face the consequences after their local schools suffer as a result of conservative Christian leaders who aren’t interested in the minutia of the jobs they were just elected to do.