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Informational Letter: 14

Policy Code:  JICDA

 

 

 

TO:                  All Superintendents, Principals, and Board Chairs

 

FROM:            J. Duke Albanese, Commissioner

 

DATE:             September 13, 2001

 

RE:                   Ensuring a Safe Learning Environment for All:  Local Codes of Conduct, Hazing, and Harassment

 

It’s still hard to believe that summer has flown by us, and that another school year has already begun.  Often, there is anticipation and excitement surrounding “the first day of school”—that fresh start.  However, for some students, the feeling is not a pleasant one of anticipation and excitement, but rather of real apprehension, anxiety, even fear; some students who, for whatever reason, are perceived as different from most students either experience, or live in fear of experiencing, the school environment as risky, hostile, or even frightening.  Students who spend their days in fear are students who are denied those opportunities to learn, to grow, to flourish that our school communities work so hard to provide for all students.

 

If we are to ensure safe environments, it will require strong policies, setting expectations for responsible behavior, and enforcing them.  We will do right by our students if our actions follow the belief that a safe and caring school environment must be provided for each and every one of our students.

 

How to define and demonstrate respect is the work of each community and each school board, but fundamental to the notion of respect is tolerance and the avoidance of any harassing behavior, such as derogatory statements about another person’s gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, or disability that have the potential of causing physical or emotional harm.  Taking Responsibility:  Standards for Ethical and Responsible Behavior in Maine Schools and Communities, p. 32.

 

Your local codes of conduct will reflect your community’s core values, and respect will be one of those core values because the community process for identifying values is an inclusive one. 

 

“All community members must be welcome in the deliberative process regardless of age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, marital status, religion or socio-economic class.”  Taking Responsibility, p. 13.

 

I’d like to remind you of two important tools for addressing the needs of those students who are or who may be subject to behavior that creates a hostile environment or frightening environment to them.

 

1.         Taking Responsibility:  Standards for Ethical and Responsible Behavior in Maine Schools and Communities

 

The Department of Education is working closely with the Maine School Management Association (MSMA) as MSMA develops sample policies for the required local codes of conduct that implement Taking Responsibility:  Standards for Ethical and Responsible Behavior in Maine Schools and Communities.  20-A MRSA §254(11).

 

Also, the Department will be developing a cadre of facilitators that will be available to schools to help facilitate the community process for identifying the core values that will guide your school and community in the development of the local codes of conduct required under 20-A MRSA §1001(15).

 

In addition, the Department has awarded grant funds to eighteen (18) school administrative units under the federal Character Education Partnership (CEP) program, which is now in the second year of its four year duration; and ten (10) additional school administrative units were selected for receipt of Conflict Resolution Education/Character Education funds for this year.  The grantees are all listed on the Department’s Character Education Partnership website at www.maine.gov/education/cep/homepage.htm under the GRANTS link.

 

Please look to your colleagues who have received these grants for their ideas of best practices for creating a school climate in which respect for all is a hallmark.

 

2.            Statutorily Required Policy Prohibiting “Injurious Hazing”

 

The required local codes of conduct are likely to overlap with the policies that school boards are already required to adopt under 20-A MRSA §6553, that establish that

 

“injurious hazing, either on or off school property, by any student—staff member, group or organization affiliated with the public school is prohibited.” 

 

What is prohibited is

 

“….any action or situation, including harassing behavior, that recklessly or intentionally endangers the mental or physical health of any school personnel or a student enrolled in public school.”

 

Consistent with the responsibility that the local codes of conduct prescribe consequences for violation of the student code of conduct, the policy prohibiting “injurious hazing” must include board-established penalties for violation of the policy.  A guidance document prepared by Eric Herlan, Esq. and Amy Tchao, Esq., from the law firm of Drummond Woodsum and MacMahon, that was distributed at the June 2001 MADSEC Directors’ Academy for directors of special education, is available at www.SchoolLaw.com, the direct link being http://www.schoollaw.com/html/pdf/318.pdf.  This excellent summary reminds us of the broad scope of our duty to enable students to access a safe, non-threatening, non-discriminatory learning environment.  I would urge you to review this document as you develop your local codes of conduct or review your existing policies on hazing and harassment.

 

It is important to remember that the local codes of conduct and the board policies required under the anti-hazing law are meant to protect all students.  For some students, harassment worsens as they get older.  For example, according to data from the Maine Children’s Alliance, gay, lesbian, and bisexual youths experience pervasive victimization both verbally and physically.  Taking Responsibility, p. 2 citing the Maine Children’s Alliance’s Maine Kids Count 2000 Data Book, p. 24.

 

Youth who are questioning their sexual identity or who are perceived as different because they do not conform to gender expectations in dress, interests, or behavior are likewise potential targets of harassment and thus run the risk of being denied the opportunities to learn that must be afforded to all students in public schools.

 

School administrators, teachers, students, and other members of the school and its community must not wait until the harassment becomes physical; the law against injurious hazing explicitly prohibits reckless or intentional endangerment of a person’s mental health, as well.  20-A MRSA 6553(1)(A).

 

It is very important that faculty, staff, and administrators consistently and firmly respond when they overhear students using degrading language and slurs—even if those words do not arise to the level of a violation of a school’s policy or code of conduct.  The routine use by students of put-downs, slurs and disrespectful comments, when not interrupted by faculty or staff who hear those comments, creates an environment that allows the language to escalate—first to more serious language, then to threats, and finally to violence.  These issues are discussed in an article written by Steve Wessler, Esq. in the December, 2000-January, 2001 issue of Educational Leadership (Vol. 58, No. 4, pp. 28-33). 

 

As you well know, it is important that expectations for safety and respect be established and enforced, not just in our academic settings, but in all places where students are in our charge—corridors, cafeterias, playgrounds, school buses, and playing fields.  Faculty and staff must be afforded the requisite professional development opportunities and resources to help them develop the skills for intervening in the hallways, cafeteria and elsewhere, to interrupt the use of degrading language.   Simply suspending students is not the answer; while suspension does remove the student from the environment, it fails both the student and the community in losing the opportunity to teach and model ethical behavior, and to restore the damaged relationship between the student and the victim and, in turn, the school and community.

 

Should you need additional information on resources that may be helpful in ensuring a positive, healthy, and safe environment for all students, please visit the RESOURCES link on the Department’s Character Education Partnership website at www.maine.gov/education/cep/homepage.htm, or see the list of Maine resources listed in Taking Responsibility, pp. 56-60.  For resources specific to students who are, or are perceived to be, different in their sexual orientation, please see the “Safe Schools Resource Guide” that was provided to all schools in the Spring of 1999.

 

Let’s make sure that every student in Maine can truly enjoy, without fear, each day of school this year.