2016-08-05 / Community News

Board hones in on changes to abuse policy

New requirements will create an additional ‘notice of action’
By Michael Kelley Staff Writer

The board of education is well on its way toward making changes to a policy that would change the way child abuse and neglect is reported for the 2016-2017 school year.

Last week the board passed at first reading, an amendment to the Reporting Child Abuse and Neglect policy, which was last amended in March 2013.

The change would create a paper trail back to the staff member who filed a report of suspected child abuse or neglect, which according to Maine law, is defined as “a threat to a child’s health or welfare by physical, mental or emotional injury or impairment, sexual abuse or exploitation, deprivation of essential needs or lack of protection from these, or failure to ensure compliance with school attendance requirements.”

Under the existing policy, after an employee has notified a social worker or nurse about a suspected child abuse or neglect case, it is passed on to school administrators to investigate and potentially pass it along to the Department of Health and Human Services. Kelly Murphy, chairman of the board’s policy committee, said the change requires the administrator to circle back to the employee to let him or her know the issue has been dealt with.

“Now there will be a form to fill out. It then goes to the administrator who fills it out. Then it is taken to the next step. It returns to the employee to acknowledge there has been action taken,” Murphy said at a policy committee meeting last week.

The proposed policy amendment states that if the notice of action is not brought back to the employee within 24 hours, he or she can go directly to DHHS.

“It’s about everyone working together to make sure no report gets lost,” board chairman Donna Beeley said at the policy meeting.

If the administrator is not available, Assistant Superintendent Jo Anne Sizemore said typically a social worker or school nurse, would handle it.

Suspected child abuse is not the only topic the policy committee reviewed last week. The group also looked at a draft policy from the Maine School Management Association (MSMA) about staff participation in political activities and how to handle employees running for public office. The policy would prohibit school employees from engaging in “political activities” while carrying out their work responsibilities during the school day, on premise or performing work on behalf of the schools in any other location. Political activities were defined as “campaigning for or against any candidate, political party or issue; using his/her position to attempt to influence students, parents or others to vote for or against any candidate or issue” as well as “wearing apparel with political messages or displaying campaign paraphernalia while working” or “soliciting for or collecting funds or distributing materials” in connection to a political campaign. The policy bans an employee from using school resources to promote a candidate or campaign, using the school logo or name to promote his or her political pursuits and encourages the employee to be mindful of talking politics to students outside classes and the school.

The policy would not prohibit guest speakers or having mock elections, debates or other simulated political activities as long as they are part of the “educational experience” or would it prevent the board from “providing information or expressing its position on any political issue affecting the schools” such as a school building bond or budget validation.

Policy committee member Kate Miles was not comfortable with some of the language in the policy, which could cause a “muddy situation.”

“It seems like an incredibly difficult policy to enforce. In the classroom it creates for some very difficult situations for teachers,” she said

Miles said she could see a scenario where a student is looking for more information about an issue or candidate, but an employee feels he or she could not engage that student in discussion for fear of violating the policy.

“I am not opposed to having a policy, but I feel some of the language in here can put teachers in a tough position.”

Murphy said she was not supportive of pursuing this policy for Scarborough because it is not one that required or recommended policy by Drummond Woodsum, a Portland-based law firm that, according to its website, helps area school districts with “drafting and analyzing school board policies, administrative procedures, school rules and student and staff handbooks to ensure compliance with legal requirements and best practices.”

Sizemore said a few years back the policy committee decided “only to act on policies that are required or recommended.”

Miles said she would prefer the committee and not Drummond Woodsum to have control over what policies Scarborough does, or doesn’t adopt.

“I don’t want to consider or not consider a policy because someone tells use it is or is not recommended,” she said.

Beeley said her goal for the policy committee is to stay current, while reviewing older policies that may not be needed anymore. She said past boards have been quick to add policies making the board’s policy manual “too unmanageable.” Murphy said at one meeting on October 3, 2002, the board at the time revised 38 policies.

The committee ultimately decided not to pursue the policy because a lot of the issues in it are addressed in policies the board already has on the books, such as Controversial Issues, which states “in the context of the educational program and approved curricula, the board supports discussion of controversial issues in an atmosphere that promotes learning and respect for the beliefs of others.”

The policy allows for the discussion of controversial issues, such a politics, as long as they are “appropriate to the age, grade and maturity of the students involved,” and are “part of the approved curriculum and for education purposes.”

The discussion must include all viewpoints and make sure all opinions are equally respected. The policy, last updated in 2013, states “educators shall not use the classroom as a forum to advance their personal views or proselytize, but are not prohibited from expressing their own views for legitimate pedagogical purposes.”

Students or parents who object to topics based on their “religious, moral or philosophical beliefs” may be able to be accommodated through the district’s Exemptions from Required Curriculum policy.

Superintendent Julie Kukenberger said politics is one of those sensitive issues that school districts need to be careful about.

“It’s like with religion. Everyone has their own faith and thoughts. Our job as educators is to make sure we are not overemphasizing our position on students,” she said. “I think the same care should be taken with politics.”

Beeley said the MSMA policy could, if necessary, be reviewed again in the future.

“We might want to hold onto it in case we want to pull it out again someday,” she told her fellow committee members.

Next month, at its Aug. 18 meeting, the committee will be meeting with Director of Athletics and Activities Mike LeGage to review athletic booster policies. The committee will continue to look into changing the policy that dictates how medication, including medicinal marijuana, is distributed to students. The board is waiting to hear back from school nurses before action is taken.

Staff Writer Michael Kelley can be reached at news@scarboroughleader.com.

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