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June 10, 2009

 

City school board debates student code

State civil liberties group asks board to be mindful of student rights in searches, questioning

By SCOTT CONROE
Staff Reporter
sconroe@cortlandstandard.net

The city Board of Education needs to learn from the recent uproar at Red Creek Central as its members discuss Code of Conduct policies for student searches, a New York Civil Liberties Union representative said Tuesday.
“Their Code of Conduct did not help them,” Barrie Gewanter, director of the NYCLU’s Central New York chapter, said at the board’s meeting. “I want to offer you suggestions as you discuss revising your own Code of Conduct.”
Red Creek High School students on a school bus were searched for prescription drugs by administrators and state police on April 9 in a manner that the NYCLU said was humiliating and invasive. State troopers told them that they could not call their parents and had no rights, the NYCLU said, causing a backlash from parents.
David Sholes, the Wayne County district’s superintendent of schools, has since apologized to district residents and promised changes in the district’s code.
The Board of Education has been updating the code to reflect the school resource officer’s role in investigations, and to address policies regarding searches of students and investigation of possible crimes.
Board member Joe Lyman raised concerns about the wording, and potential lawsuits from how school problems are investigated, at the May 12 meeting where the board first discussed the code revisions. He has since cited the Red Creek situation as an example.
The current policy says parents must be contacted if a student is being questioned by school administrators. The committee of staff and students examining the code recommended cutting that section, since it was written when schools summoned city police to investigate crimes.
Now the district has a school resource officer, Officer Robert Reyngoudt. The code committee said his questioning of students falls into two categories: casual, which is every day and happens all day, and investigative, which is when parents should be contacted.
The district has had a resource officer for several years. The board has not said why the code’s wording was not changed before now.
Gewanter offered her suggestions during the meeting’s first public comment part, speaking for 10 minutes as Board President Lisa Hoeschele asked her to keep it short.
Gewanter said a section authorizing school district staff besides administrators to conduct searches of students and their belongings is too broad. Searches should be conducted only by administrators, she said.
She also questioned wording that said minimally intrusive searches of students’ belongings may be conducted without reasonable suspicion, saying the policy should also say that a search based on reasonable suspicion should be conducted “in the least intrusive manner.”
“I suggest that this be spelled out in order to provide adequate guidance for school employees authorized to conduct a search,” Gewanter said.
She said the code’s proposed new wording, removing the requirement that parents be contacted and leaving in wording that students need to be informed of their legal rights, “conveys a severe and alarming change of tone.”
Gewanter said the old language was student-centered and went beyond legalistic language, while the proposed language carries a more authoritarian tone and offers students no guidance about their rights.
The board approved the first reading of the revisions but said it would continue to discuss the code’s wording as long as necessary, to make sure legal concerns are addressed.
“The board can look at policy as many times as it likes until the board is satisfied,” said Superintendent of Schools Laurence Spring.
Hoeschele asked the committee’s chair, Assistant Superintendent Judi Riley, to continue revision, reflecting concerns raised by Gewanter and Lyman.
“All of us being parents, we know we want students’ rights protected and for students to be safe,” Hoeschele said.
Board member Sean Clark said the policy needs to be clear about how students will be questioned. Hoeschele agreed but said the wording needs to allow Reyngoudt to do his job.
Lyman praised Reyngoudt’s job performance and said Reyngoudt has offered to survey other school resource officers about how they handle their jobs.

 

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