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Sexual misconduct policies
on front burner

by PJ Rooks
Landmark reporter

(This is the second of a two part series dealing with new state legislation regarding teacher-to-student sexual misconduct).

School boards and administrators in Platte County now have about another month to have policies in place regarding new state laws dealing with teacher-student relationships.

The school board members and administrators won’t write out the policies from scratch themselves, but instead subscribe to policy service providers – through the Missouri School Board Association, for example, in the case of the North Platte and Platte County R-3 districts – that write policies in accordance with the laws. The policies can then be adopted, changed (or even ignored) by school boards and changes to the text are often vetted by district attorneys or other experts before being proposed for adoption.

The MSBA policy is intended to ensure that staff “maintain courteous and professional relationships with students,” “provide an atmosphere conducive to learning through consistently and fairly applied discipline and the maintenance of physical and emotional boundaries with students,” and “protect students from harm and staff members from allegations of misconduct.”

To that end, the policy as written by the MSBA absolutely prohibits teachers from intimately touching students, engaging in sexual relationships with them, dating or making future plans to date them and sexually harassing or discriminating against them.

Under the heading of “Failure to Maintain Boundaries,” a number of rules, including rules against being behind closed doors with a student, having students as guests at a staff member’s home and providing students with teachers’ private e-mail addresses or cell phone numbers without supervisory consent, delineate how professional relationships between teachers and students may be conducted. Local educators have expressed a general consensus however that some of the policy suggestions may be too restrictive.

West Platte Superintendent Kyle Stephenson said that his district uses Missouri Consultants of Education as its policy service provider and adopted a “lite” version of its Communication with Students by Electronic Media policy text on January 25. The version is only about one-half of a page long, compared with the MSBA’s roughly eight-page policy suggestion, and, said Stephenson, is not as restrictive as the MCE’s full version.

“It’s not that we don’t try to protect our kids, we don’t want to adopt a policy that as soon as you adopt it, everybody’s out of compliance,” Stephenson said. “If you have (the policies) there and you don’t enforce them then you’re not following your policy. You don’t want to be set up to fail.”

Said North Platte Superintendent Jeff Sumy, “Our concerns with this policy modeled by MSBA are that it becomes punitive and there are some parts of the policy that become unrealistic.”

A coach for his third-grade daughter’s softball team, Sumy said that the policy as suggested would prohibit him from celebrating the end of the season by inviting team mates to a backyard pool party at his home. He also said that because his office has no windows, if he needed to close the door to have a private conversation with a student, he would be in violation of the policy.

The North Platte school board approved the policy with changes suggested by administrators during their meeting on January 18. The district’s editor at the MSBA will now review the changes before they are made final, Sumy said.

At Platte County R-3, board member Julie Vanover expressed concern that the MSBA policy, as written, would restrict teacher-to-student electronic communications during the overnight hours and would also prevent her daughter from visiting the home of a friend whose mother is a teacher in the district.

R-3 Superintendent Mike Reik said that an exceptions section of the policy seems to make the entire document “a little bit more sane” but that the board may still want to edit some of the MSBA’s suggestions.

Assistant Superintendent Rob Gardner pointed out the importance of creating a sensible policy but one that recognizes “realistic teaching advantages that you can’t handcuff or take away from the teaching staff.”

“We’ve tabbed some of those things (in the policy) and are working with our attorney to soften some of that language but yet leave it flexible enough to say that, ‘There are best practices here and that some of these (situations), you don’t want to put yourself in.’ I think we’ve done a fairly good job of creating some social media guidelines to get with the Facebook and the texting and cell phone issues but there are certain things – minor points that we have to comb through and get some feedback – and hopefully (we can) put a policy together that makes sense so we can adhere to it but also have some kind of teeth to it to make people be held accountable.”

For both North Platte and Platte County R-3, some of the policy suggestions not tagged for possible changes included those prohibiting teachers from being present when students are nude, communicating with students about sexual topics “verbally or by any form of written, pictorial or electronic” means, discussing personal problems in the presence of students and “associating with students in any setting where students are provided, are consuming or are encouraged to use or consume alcohol, tobacco, drugs or any other product or service prohibited to minors,” among others.

The Park Hill and West Platte boards of education have adopted policies to meet the March 1 deadline, said representatives from both districts, while North Platte and Platte County R-3 plan to finalize their policies in February.