I am one member of a five person board. The opinions I express on this forum are mine only, and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Escambia County Staff, Administrators, Employees, or anyone else associated with Escambia County Florida. I am interested in establishing this blog as a means of additional transparency to the public, outreach to the community, and information dissemination to all who choose to look. Feedback is welcome, but because public participation is equally encouraged, appropriate language and decorum is mandatory.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Safe Harbor Running Into Troubled Waters

I'm running into significant resistance to the idea of a formal, codified "Safe Harbor Provision" being added to our students Rights and Responsibilities Handbook. I'm not going to beome fixated or neurotic over this issue. I do find the level of resistance to be interesting though.

Here is a recent email string on the subject, with my response below:

Dear Mr. Bergosh,

I understand your position, but I hope you will reconsider. In a time when violence is becoming so commonplace, we do not want to open an opportunity for students to bring weapons to school and then use "safe harbor" as a way of getting around their choice. A student who arrives at the bus stop with a weapon has the option of turning it in when he gets to school by saying he did not realize he had it. That is pretty frightening to me because he has had it on one of our buses. Having worked in the high school for almost 38 years, students rarely ever accept responsibility for bringing weapons, drugs, etc., to school, and I believe we are opening the door for students to take more risks because they believe they will have a safety net. We will also increase the number of formal hearings we will have because this language will give students another position in which to argue their case. I understand you are concerned about the student who truly makes a mistake, but we are placing language in the R & R book that will create an environment that is less safe for all students. I hope we will place our emphasis on the safety of all students. Sincerely,

Carolyn Spooner

Carolyn Spooner
Director of High Schools469-5495 office
469-5630 fax

Mrs. Spooner,

I appreciate your perspective and your years of experience. This entire issue is really not something I'll "dig my heels in" and hold my ground over, like I did and will continue to do over issues like Merit Pay. I simply felt that in this instance, Mrs. Waters' language was good, and having a Safe Harbor provision seems to work quite well in other districts including St. Lucie County. As written, what Mrs. Waters emailed to me would not provide any sort of a "safety net" to someone who brings a weapon to school and is caught with it. I disagree with that blanket assessment and I don't feel it would be that simplistic. However, not having a provision could become problematic.

I'm told of a situation that allegedly transpired a few years back with a very bright PHS IB student that got caught with a huge bag of dope. My understanding of this issue is that because we did not have safe harbor language, her legal team successfully used that against the district and the student was permitted to come back to the IB program after that incident. In a nutshell, her argument was “I found the dope, panicked, and was unable to turn it in because of zero tolerance and the lack of a safe harbor"While I know that defense was weak and questionable, it worked because we lacked the appropriate safe harbor language in our R&R handbook. This student's legal team worked our own rulebook against us and used us like tools.

I realize that with a safe harbor provision, legal challenges to suspensions may be easier to mount. However, I am an advocate for the innocent student who "forgets he has his pocketknife in the backpack following a weekend boy scout camping trip." I know these situations are extremely rare, but this hypothetical student ought to have a codified mechanism to voluntarily turn in the knife, without fear of repercussion and without having to hope for or rely on his teacher giving him the "benefit of the doubt". I mean, what if this hypothetical student has a strained relationship with his teacher? The process should be uniform in practice and outlined in the language of the R&R handbook---not guided by knee-jerk hunches and/or some other improvised method at the school level. This is just my sense of how it should work.

Perhaps it is just a philosophical difference of opinion, but I sincerely believe we ought to have some provision in the R&R book that mirrors what I'm told is already being practiced at the individual school level. This way, the language in the book will align precisely with what is actually in practice on the ground.With all this being said, I'm not going to drag out the war machine and battle over this issue. I'll bring it up, the board may or may not support me, discussion will/may follow, the vote will/may then happen, the board will speak with one voice through their vote (or lack thereof) and the issue will be put to rest. We will either have a safe harbor provision in the R&R Handbook, or we won't.

I hope we do.


Jeff Bergosh

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