A weekend interview with ...
... Pinellas School Board chairwoman Nancy Bostock. Bostock talked with reporter Donna Winchester about the district's efforts to update the Code of Student Conduct, particularly regarding its zero tolerance policy for weapons on campus.
Where does the district stand in its revamp of the Code of Student Conduct?
We make revisions to the code of student conduct annually on an as-needed basis, but we use a three-year cycle to do a complete and full review of the code to bring forth more substantive changes. We're in the midst of doing that now. We've gotten input from different stakeholder groups â?? principals, teachers, PTA members. The committee that collected that input has brought it to the board for our input. The new code goes into effect in August '08, so the board will finalize the recommendations this spring or in early summer.
What are some of the key changes the district is looking to make this time around?
We're looking to clarify our policies that visitors coming to the front offices of schools need to show picture IDs. That's always been in place, but we're putting in stronger language because we have better technology in the offices to run background checks on parents coming on to our campuses.
We are also, like Hillsborough County, looking at our policy on electronic items. We're making a distinction now between instructional and non-instructional use of electronic items. We're aware that sometimes there is an instructional use for certain electronic items in the classroom. We're also going to look at our policy on when and under what circumstances use of cell phones and electronic items would be appropriate in schools.
I guess one of the bigger items we're looking at is the classification of air soft guns and how discipline will be handled for students who bring those types of guns to campus. The proposal in front of us would redefine air soft guns not as guns as they currently are defined but as dangerous objects. The advantage in doing that is that it will give our school administrators more flexibility in how we discipline students who bring air soft guns to school.
What happens now to kids who are caught with an air soft gun?
As they're classified now, air soft guns fall under state laws of no tolerance. Students who are caught with them must be recommended for expulsion.
Are there a lot of kids being expelled for having an air soft gun?
We're expelling more and more students. It's an increasing number, and it's mostly at middle schools.
The new policy wouldn't necessary mean we won't under some circumstances still expel students who bring air soft guns to school. That very well could continue. But it will give us the flexibility to say that while the student who brought the gun to school with intent to harm might be expelled, his buddy who simply held it for a few seconds might not be subject to the same punishment.
We're still discussing just how we're going to define the disciplinary consequences. One thing we would look at would be, did the child bring the air soft gun to school or were they involved with handling someone else's gun? Did they bring the air soft gun with the intention of harming someone? Did they actually harm someone? We'll look at those factors to determine the proper consequences.
Where do School Board members stand on these changes in the way air soft guns would be classified?
We've had a lot of vigorous discussion about this. We have not reached consensus yet. The board recognizes how serious air soft guns are. Even if we're not going to consider them as guns, they're still dangerous objects. I think overall, all board members are concerned that we continue to send the message that these are dangerous objects and they do not belong on school campuses. There is definite agreement that we'd like to increase flexibility about having some amount of discretion in the range of penalties. But we have not come to consensus on what that range should be and in what circumstances penalties should apply.
We are definitely not excluding the possibility of expulsion. Expulsion for an air soft gun could till happen with these revisions. It just won't have to happen. It will depend upon the circumstances.
And what do you think?
I think flexibility is always a good thing. I think it's going to result in more fair and equitable discipline of our students who are involved in situations with air soft guns. But like some of the other School Board members, I do want to make sure that we're still sending the message that this is not okay, that this is a serious offense. Other students can get hurt, and the student who brings the gun or possesses it can get hurt. These are very authentic looking weapons. If a law enforcement officer sees a child with a weapon, there could be disastrous results. I think we must continue to send the message that it's a very serious event, even as we in some cases step down the consequences.