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Hernando County School Board revisits student conduct code

BROOKSVILLE — Got an iPod in school? Be prepared to hand it over for a possible search.

Vandalize school property within a month of graduation? Brace yourself to sit out your class's commencement ceremony.

Commit an act of bullying or sexual harassment? Be ready to sit through prevention sessions.

These are some of the realities spelled out in recommended revisions to the Hernando County School District's student code of conduct.

As technology marches on, students find new ways to get in trouble, and the district is trying to come up with constructive ways to discipline kids, said Jim Knight, director of student services.

A committee of administrators, teachers and a parent, with help from the School Board attorney, is recommending changes, additions and clarifications to the ever-evolving student rule book. The School Board will consider the recommendations at a 2 p.m. workshop Tuesday.

Among the noteworthy edits:

• The code would explicitly state that school officials have a right to search cell phones and other electronic devices if there is "reasonable suspicion" that a search would reveal a violation of the code, such as cheating or sending obscene text messages or photos.

The code until now has given staffers the right to confiscate the devices. But recent court cases prompted School Board attorney Paul Carland to endorse the more specific language, making the gadgets fair game for searches, just like a student's locker, pockets or vehicle, Knight said.

"As long as parents know in advance that we have the right to search, it's a legal search," Knight said.

• The ubiquitous iPod would be added to the list of prohibited electronic devices, joining personal digital assistants, MP3 players, pagers, and other e-mail and messaging devices other than cell phones.

• What is known as sexting — the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photos via cell phones — had already been added as a punishable offense. But the new code would clearly state that school officials will call police if an image sent by cell phone or other device contains nude images of children or adults.

• Prevention classes would be required in some cases of disciplinary action.

For example, students found guilty of a first offense of sexual harassment would be required to take a course on the subject, in addition to up to three days of out-of-school suspension. Students guilty of a first offense of bullying would have to attend a course on that subject, along with five days of out-of-school suspension. Participation in a mentoring program has also been added as a possible consequence.

The goal is to keep kids in school by cutting the number of suspension days and offering more productive disciplinary action instead, Knight said.

"We're trying to teach what is acceptable behavior vs. what is unacceptable," he said. "The school system is having to go back to the golden rule, and we have to teach standards."

• High school seniors found guilty of "pranks" or "vandalism" that result in out-of-school suspension within the last 30 days of the school year may be barred from graduation ceremonies, a decision that can be left to the school administrator. That adds more specific language to the current code, which simply states that "serious offenses" within the last month of school could result in sitting out commencement.

Knight acknowledged that the controversy that erupted near the end of last school year at Hernando High School played a role in the clarification. Two groups of students, many of them seniors, came onto campus over the weekend. One group committed mostly benign pranks such as stacking desks and putting grease on doorknobs; the other sprayed graffiti and caused other damage on the campus.

Principal Ken Pritz forbade all of the seniors from participating in commencement, but the students appealed to then-superintendent Wayne Alexander, who allowed the students guilty of the lesser offenses to participate in graduation, though other sanctions stood.

"It was a learning experience," Knight said.

While the revised code explicitly states that the school-based administrator has the power to make that decision, the superintendent could still override it.

The district beefed up its bullying and harassment policy in 2008 with guidance from the state, making definitions of those offenses clearer. The latest version of the student code would include minor changes to mirror exactly what the state recommended, Knight said.

But more changes in that area are on the way, superintendent Bryan Blavatt said.

Some parents are still complaining lately that school officials aren't addressing bullying complaints soon enough, if at all. Blavatt said the process would improve response time and communication with upset parents.

"We're going to do better on that," he said.

Reporter Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Hernando County School Board revisits student conduct code 05/01/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 1, 2010 12:43pm]
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