Teacher accused of spanking could face battery, child cruelty charges

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LAKE CITY, Fla. —

The Columbia County Sheriff's Office is recommending that a teacher accused of spanking several students be charged with nine counts of battery and nine counts of cruelty toward a child.

CCSO has completed its investigation and has referred its recommended charges against teacher Mary Lee Rachal to the State Attorney's Office, according to CCSO public information officer Murray Smith. Rachal worked as a teacher at Pinemount Elementary School during the time the accusations surfaced.

An investigation into Rachal was launched on May 16, after a tip came into the Florida Department of Children and Families hotline that several students had been spanked. Seven students told investigators that they had been spanked and two did not disclose whether they had been, according to a CCSO offense report. Ten additional students said they witnessed the abuse of nine students.

According to the report, several students told investigators that Rachal would take the students into a closet with the lights off and the door open and would paddle them with a ruler or a wooden paddle. After the paddling, Rachal would leave the kids in the room until they stopped crying, according to the report.

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While Columbia County teachers may use corporal punishment, the report said, allegations against Rachal stated that she violated state law and school board policy when administering it.

"There was no other adult present during the administration of corporal punishment. ... There was no notification of the punishment to the principal or the parents, which was in violation of the school board policy," according to the report.

At the June 24 school board meeting, Rachal was suspended without pay indefinitely. The school board will review Rachal's employment status at its meeting this week.

At that same June 24 meeting, Donna McAdams was replaced as the school's principal by Cherie Hill, formerly the principal at Westside Elementary. McAdams, along with five other school staff members, was suspended without pay. The school board said the staff members failed to report a claim of child abuse in a timely manner in another case.

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Action News spoke with the parent who was the first one to notify school leaders about the alleged abuse, after her 5-year-old daughter came home crying about what she witnessed.

“'She takes us in the closet and spanks us and she makes us do the turtle' and I asked her what the turtle was and she says it's when they bend their head in between their legs and they have to cover but sometimes they don't cover their eyes and they watch,” she said.

Whether or not Rachal broke the law is the one question that hasn't been answered.

“When the child abuse statute clearly talks about emotional distress, that's the other part that the state attorney is going to look at and make their determination on,” Smith said.