Shirley Brown

Shirley Brown

Who determines what may or may not be in the best interest of a child?

The Sarasota County School Board members have contracted the consulting firm of Kroll Associates to review the school district’s policies on sexual harassment and discrimination. The consultants recently provided the school board members with an evaluation with recommendations for new policies.

That topic is up for debate among school board members is who should district officials notify if a student files a harassment or discrimination complaint against another student.

Kroll consultants provided a complaint procedure stating that in a case where a student complains of discrimination or harassment against another student, the school district will notify the parents of both students — the one making the complaint and the student who is accused.

The sentence up for debate states, “except in limited circumstances when the Title IX Officer (or designee) determines that such notification is not in the best interest or impairs the safety of the claimant involved, in which case only the parents or legal guardians of the respondent [accused] will be notified.”

Title IX is the federal policy that protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities in the United States. Kroll has also recommended the board appoint a person to be the Title IX officer to make sure the district is in compliance of the federal policy.

The words “best interest” struck a chord with school board members.

School board member Bridget Ziegler argued when the district looked to revise and adopt new policies, “Where there was any ambiguous nature or language, it posed a problem,” Ziegler said.

“When it there wasn’t clearly defined language of what to do and when, it put us in a challenging circumstance. Certainly you would assume common sense would play a role, but I think history has spoken for itself and illustrated that isn’t always the case.” she continued.

Ziegler explained the language is to ensure due process, but also to protect the district from legal exposure.

“How do you determine the ambiguous language of the best interest of a child?” she questioned. “My concern is, if we don’t have an explicit or a fair and balanced way to determine that, then that leaves us open to broad interpretation.”

Ziegler asked the board to eliminate the language of “except in limited circumstances…” However, the board declined the motion 3-2, with Ziegler and Eric Robinson in favor of the change.

Board member Shirley Brown declined the notion, stating that the district has to do what’s in the best interest of the child. She added that if there’s any question, they should always err on the side of the child.

“We paid a lot of money for this report, we went out and got supposedly the best minds together and looked at what was the best model language,” Brown said.

She said the district needs to get something together for the equity policies and procedures, so teachers and staff can be trained before the beginning of the school year.

Ultimately, the board denied changing the language Kroll recommended and approved the motion to advertise the changes to the policies.

“If we go forward and find problems that we don’t know how to handle, I think we can address them at that time,” Brown said.

The full policy recommended by Kroll can be read on the district’s website: https://bit.ly/2A1NGLR

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