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Hernando schools students' cell phones can be searched, board says

BROOKSVILLE — Give administrators the explicit right to search cell phones and other electronic devices, but make sure they know how and when to do it.

School Board members sent that message to the superintendent and district staff Tuesday as they approved an updated version of the district's student code of conduct.

Among the additions is a section that makes it clear that cell phones and other electronic devices are subject to a search if an administrator has "reasonable suspicion" that a student has used the gadget to commit an offense such as cheating. The district has the legal right to search electronics just as it can search a locker or car, student services director Jim Knight has said.

Even so, district staff should receive training on "what reasonable suspicion means and what ignites a reasonable suspicion," board member John Sweeney said Tuesday.

"I think teachers and administrators need to … know what they're doing before they do it, otherwise I'm not comfortable letting them loose," Sweeney said.

Teachers won't actually be conducting searches, Hernando Classroom Teachers Association president Joe Vitalo noted. Teachers can report incidents, but the decisions to search are left to administrators.

"I still think (teachers) need to know what's going on," Sweeney replied.

Chairman Pat Fagan and board member James Yant agreed. Board member Sandra Nicholson was absent due to do a family medical issue and board member Dianne Bonfield was out of town.

The training on searches, the updated bullying policy and other aspects of the student code will begin this summer when administrators meet for the annual summer leadership conference, Superintendent Bryan Blavatt said.

Among the other additions and revisions to the code:

• The iPod will be added to the list of prohibited electronic devices.

• The code will clearly state that school officials will call police if an image sent by cell phone or other device contains nude images of people.

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

For example, students found guilty of a first offense of sexual harassment or bullying would be required to take a course on those subjects in addition to out-of-school suspension.

Participation in a mentoring program has also been added as a possible consequence.

• 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.

In other action, the board:

• Approved a three-year extension of the single-gender classroom pilot program that began in 2007 at Westside Elementary

Data show that students in Westside's single-gender classrooms in many cases are outpacing their peers in traditional classrooms, and parents, teachers, and students overwhelmingly support the program, Westside principal Dominick Ferello told the board. Blavatt recommended that the board grant Ferello's request to extend the program.

• Reached consensus to extend board attorney Paul Carland's contract for another year. A vote is set for May 18.

All five board members gave Carland glowing written evaluations, rating him in 18 categories under the headings of performance, professional services, communication and organization. The scale extended from 1 to 9, with 9 being "excellent," and Carland did not receive a single score lower than an 8. Carland, who started with the district in 2005, has an annual salary of $110,000. He did not ask for a raise this year.

"In these times, I'm thankful to have my position," he said.

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

Hernando schools students' cell phones can be searched, board says 05/04/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 4, 2010 9:14pm]

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