Wake schools could get new rules on fights, searches

ccampbell@newsobserver.comFebruary 26, 2013 

  • Setting the agenda

    The Wake County school board’s policy committee also recommended changes Tuesday to rules governing how meeting agendas are set.

    If the full board approves the change, board members will have a harder time adding last-minute items to the agenda. Those maneuvers have caused controversy in years past when members of the board minority said they didn’t get time to prepare for an issue and alert the public.

    Instead, two members must work together with the board chair to add an item before the board votes to approve the agenda.

    “We’re working hard not to allow ‘slip something in’ governance … no matter who the majority is,” board member Jim Martin said.

— The Wake County school board’s policy committee on Tuesday recommended updated guidelines for handling student fights and searches.

The policy tweaks were prompted by new state mandates, rather than a local incident. The first is a directive on how teachers and administrators should deal with fighting students.

The proposed rules require that school employees “take reasonable measures to maintain a safe school environment” – whether that’s speaking to the students, immediately reporting the clash to security and administrators, or getting bystanders out of harm’s way. Employees also have the option to use “reasonable force,” defined as “limited physical contact or restraint,” to restore safety.

That’s how most employees have always handled the situations, but it hasn’t been spelled out in a policy before.

“We don’t want to dictate that a staff member jump in between two students that are trading blows, but it’s not OK to do nothing,” board attorney Jonathan Blumberg said.

Interim Superintendent Stephen Gainey said on-campus violence is a hard issue to tackle.

“Having these situations occur is probably the worst thing I dealt with as a principal,” he said. “It’s just so unsettling.”

The committee also pushed for more student-friendly rules on searches. The initial proposal called for altering which high-level district administrator must approve strip searches, but board members had other concerns with the current search policy.

“I’m kind of surprised at how stringent this is,” board member Christine Kushner said. “I would like to see more statements of student rights. … To me, our students are at a disadvantage.”

Under the policy, students can be searched “whenever a school authority has reasonable suspicion to believe that the student is in possession of illegal or unauthorized materials.” Pat-down searches must be done privately with a same-sex school employee and adult witness; strip searches are allowed only when a suspected item is “imminently dangerous.” The latter category, a target for lawsuits in other districts, requires an OK from the district’s senior director of security.

The policy doesn’t specify what students must do in a strip search, describing it as a “more intrusive search” than a pat-down.

Board members recommended slight changes that wouldn’t necessarily require a suspension for students who refuse to be searched. And they said students should be informed of their options, either through a “student bill of rights” or an educational video shown each school year.

“I think teaching kids about advocating for themselves is part of them being successful in life,” board member John Tedesco said.

The full board will vote on the policy changes next month.

Campbell: 919-829-4802 or twitter.com/RaleighReporter

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