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.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Rights and Responsibilities Handbook Meeting Goes 5+ Hours

The Escambia County School Board met in a workshop to discuss the rights and responsibilities (R&R) handbook yesterday, in what would turn out to be an epic five and a half hour marathon session.
Room 160 was packed out with district administrators, teachers, members of social justice groups, and other interested community persons.

The big issue du jour was the revisions to the R&R handbook.  Primarily these were related to expanded language describing those persons whom the district would now specifically identify as persons not to be bullied, harassed, or discriminated against.  Several justice groups gave board members suggested language to add to the R&R-with the most high profile addition being the addition of“gender identity/expression” to the ever expanding list of those against whom discrimination is not tolerated, that currently includes:   race, color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, and many more. 

The board eventually voted 3-2 to add the language to the book, and the overall R&R book was approved for advertising via a 3-2 vote, with Bill Slayton and me voting against. (I brought an alternative proposal to use comprehensive language to encompass all the non-discrimination laws, however my idea was rejected)

I expressed my appreciation for the input from members of the public and from the staff who patiently waited through the entire meeting, and I expressed my appreciation to the Superintendent for his willingness to compromise and add language allowing for parents to be contacted prior to police questioning of minor students at school—this is something I have pressed for several years and this language change was the biggest step forward that took place yesterday-by far- during the session; it really was a huge step forward and I’m pleased to get good compromise language into the book for the protection of parental and student  rights against self-incrimination.

I was also pleased that the “change of placement” term is being rightly changed to what it really has become lately, that being “disciplinary reassignment”.  I’m also pleased that the board will now vote on these “disciplinary reassignments” monthly as statute dictates we should- based upon Mrs. Waters Memo describing the legal basis for this requirement.

But even though we made some significant forward progress in the session yesterday-I still feel like we are moving in the wrong direction with respect to discipline, and this is ultimately the primary reason I was unable to vote to approve this handbook yesterday.

Why do we allow students, during the time they are serving In-School Suspensions, to participate in extracurricular activities like football and basketball?  If a student has violated the conduct policy to the extent that they are suspended, they should be suspended from all the fun activities as well.  This must change.

Additionally, when we water down the penalty for drug use/possession on campus, which is what the revisions made to

the book yesterday allows, we send the wrong message to students and the community.  We have fought the scourge of drugs in our schools for years, and to go backward now and de-couple this infraction from the bomb threats and weapons penalties and not enforce a one-year minimum expulsion for bringing drugs to school---this is a dangerous mistake that is not in the best interest of students in my opinion.  I can’t support going backwards on the board’s longstanding one-year removal policy for bringing drugs to school, so I can’t vote for this.  The same thing will occur when we get to chapter 7 in the board policy book—if we water it down (which I will vociferously oppose) I will not support it, I will vote against chapter 7 as well.  These policies have to be about what is best for kids, not about how tweaking a penalty might appease a special interest social justice group that thinks we are too tough on some students.  The policy was a sound, equally applied (in most cases) deterrent, now it will become much less of one…

I have not, nor will I ever, discriminate against someone who is transgender.  I do not judge people, only God judges.  And because I do not discriminate and I am a compassionate person who cares about all students, I also do not want any student to be bullied, harassed, or victimized due to his/her gender identity/expression.  I voted against this language because I felt as though the current language or a comprehensive policy change (like the one I brought) would have been a better, more sufficient remedy.  Current policy, as it was written, would have encompassed protection for those transgendered individuals---and if they had reported any instances of mistreatment, such transgressions would have been addressed.

My concern now is, if this language is adopted, who decides at the school level what student can receive accommodation or dispensation with respect to dress/code, use of gender identified restrooms, opposite sex locker facilities, participation in gender identifying sports, etc. etc?  Will a doctor’s note or letter from a parent be required? What will the process be at each school to provide accommodation and to enforce this new language so that students will be protected and the board will not face lawsuits?  Has sensitivity training been scheduled for school staff to uphold this policy? What if a student or a whole group of male students decides they want to wear dresses on some days?  Who decides who is legitimate and who is not?  Will the policy result in MORE harassment and bullying of transgendered students?  Can the schools manage something this complex? (At 2 of the High School graduations this year, simplistic yet important policy regarding the order of introductions of platform guests was botched.  This was simple, easy stuff.)  I'm worried about what happens if the profound, much more important policy regarding treatment of transgendered students enacted yesterday--what happens if the schools don't/can't get this right?  Answer:  Lawsuits directed at the School Board.

This is going to be a difficult change to manage, no question.

To reiterate my paramount reason for disagreement:  I believe the addition of specific language as has been done, as  our attorney advised/warned us about during the meeting, .will have the potential to invite litigation if procedures are not followed precisely;  litigation will be all but assured if our schools are not successful at implementing this change.

My preference, what I feel would have been a better course of action, would have been to wait a year and see how significant issues in other districts related to similar policy implementation play out--- prior to enacting this policy locally—so we could learn from those districts and not make the same mistakes.

But I do respect the board’s vote--- even though I'm concerned with the action taken prior to seeing the plan of how it will be implemented.

This is governance in action, everyone will not always agree, and every vote will not always be "5-0."  Nobody should take this as a shot against them, nobody should get bent out of shape because I voted no.  

There are other items in the document that I dislike as well, related to who places students in schools and who assigns transferred students to their new schools.  This question was not settled at the meeting, even though some compromise on some aspects of this process was reached.  In my view, when the Board's attorney and Superintendent's attorney are in disagreement on something so fundamental--the question must be answered and consensus reached. It seems crystal clear that the Board places students, yet Superintendent Thomas and his attorney, Joe Hammons, disagree;  the language as I read it is unambiguous in 1003.53(1)(a)  1006.07(1)(k) and 1001.41(6) --so somebody is going to have to settle this. I'm going to work on this over the next year, and my  hope for next year is that all stakeholders, myself included, will be able to be much more involved in the development of the R&R handbook prior to the last minute-- which is the opposite of what happened at this year's goat-rope!
In addition to this, I hope that next year the non-productive, vitriolic rhetoric directed at the board from the superintendent’s staff in the audience (that were compelled to attend this meeting and directed to speak at public forum to specific issues) can be toned down.  It is unprofessional to loudly groan and moan from the floor of the room, interrupting board members who rightly have the floor.  It’s rude, off-putting, and boorish as well. 

And To the person who said she felt like the board disrespected her and did not trust her--- when I get constituent complaints about the way students are treated at schools, I’m going to work at making and implementing policy solutions to address those deficiencies--that's my job as a school board member.  It’s not personal; don’t take it that way- just as I don’t take it personally when you don’t properly follow established protocol during graduation ceremonies with respect to introductions of your platform guests at your school.

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