Friday, August 13, 1999
Harassment policy prompts debate at Carlisle School Committee
A revised harassment policy for the Carlisle Public School is in the works, but legal counsel will determine whether or not the proposed draft becomes dogma. Perhaps because of the school's recent entanglements with harassment issues, or perhaps because of the currently litigious society, the draft prompted a debate at the August 4 school committee meeting over how broad the policy should be and its potential legal ramifications.
Last fall, as part of its annual policy review process, the school committee had initiated a study of the school's sexual harassment policy adopted in 1993, asking the health advisory committee to make appropriate recommendations for change. At the recent meeting, Cindy Nock, a member of the school committee and health advisory, recounted how the advisory had first collected policies from other local school systems. The Triton Regional School policy "bubbled to the surface," she said, because it addressed more forms of harassment, the language was in layman's terms and it was easier to follow in outline format. After an initial review last spring, the school committee had also responded favorably but recommended a merger with some portions of the current policy. The advisory had made the suggested changes and Nock appeared at the recent meeting with a draft that she hoped would receive affirmative action.
The new policy described prohibited conduct, prevention responsibilities of the school, referral procedures for reporting violations and corrective/disciplinary procedures for substantiated harassment. Nock added, "We're not saying it won't exist. We're saying it will be addressed if it occurs." The committee's discussion of the six-page document, however, never got beyond page 2 where the types of harassment were defined.
According to the document, "Prohibited conduct includes, but is not limited to the conduct described below when that conduct:
A. is related to a person's sex (gender), race, color, national origin, religion, age, handicap, disability, personality, physical traits or sexual orientation and
B. is unwelcome by or hurtful to the recipient, and
C. has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive academic or work environment."
Superintendent Davida Fox-Melanson stated that after speaking with legal counsel and based upon the knowledge she had obtained in light of the recent case, the legal definition of harassment must be included and she had concerns about broadening a policy which becomes a legal document.
Member Paul Morrison stated clearly, "We have to have some procedures about what the school will do if non-sexual harassment behavior occurs. I liked the way the draft explained the range of behaviors and said these are the procedures to follow."
Standards for civility
Fox-Melanson claimed that there is good reason to have standards for a more civil society but that's not harassment policy. She suggested the policy stick to a more narrow legal definition and the school have a separate, broader code of conduct. Principal Andy Goyer agreed there needed to be more discussion of how to create a more civil environment but he did not believe that should be part of a more formal procedure.
Nock differed, asking why bullying should be different from other harassment. She said the policy is preventative and assures the school will address a situation of concern. "We have sexual harassment policy but not general harassment policy."
The crux of the matter seemed to be whether broadening the definition of harassment would make the school more vulnerable to lawsuits. Fox-Melanson contended that the problem with the proposed draft was that it was "equating non-legally defined behavior with legally defined behavior." From a legal standpoint, school business manager Eileen Riley pointed out that Title 9 is more comprehensive than sexual harassment and covers a range of behaviors, such as harassment related to race, color, etc.
Morrison pointed out, "We don't want to have lawsuits but we'd like to have a lot of behaviors described in a code of conduct with resulting procedures." While member Suzanne Whitney Smith contended that the problem with a policy too broad is that it could lock-step the school into legal procedures, Nock responded that the policy outlined an informal reporting process.
Chair David Dockterman suggested that a goal of the committee should be to improve the level of civility across the school community, which is separate from the harassment policy. Then, he asked, "What do we need to do to cover Title 9?"
Member Harry Crowther weighed in firmly saying, "I like this policy. Let's see what the lawyers have to say."
Fox-Melanson responded that she was "uncomfortable if it's all in one policy" saying it should "emerge from the teachers, too." Some members wondered if staff should be creating policy. Nock's response was that teachers were included on the health advisory and were "very receptive" to the procedures, believing they should have a document with guidelines.
The staff will receive some training in the law come September, according to Fox-Melanson. A number of committee members suggested that they, too, would like to be educated by legal counsel on the matter.
Dockterman concluded that the draft would be sent off for legal response to the question, "Does this fulfill Title 9 legal requirements?" However, it was clear that the committee had another goal. "We want to improve the level of civility. What is the plan to do this? We're committed to having a code of conduct. Policy in itself doesn't change the conduct in the school. What beyond that do we want to have happen and what is the plan for making it happen?" Dockterman asked.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito